Dr. H. J. Heimlich Project: Rescue on the Top of the World

You may know from previous press releases that in 2011 the Winkler Center for the History of the Health Professions received the papers of Dr. Henry J. Heimlich, best known for his development of the Heimlich maneuver. In January of 2012 we began the year long project of processing the collection so that they can be made available to researchers. I am now about five months into the project and have done an initial inventory of approximately 80% of the collection as I’ve rehoused the items in archival folders and boxes. As I’ve gone through the material, more than a few items have caught my interest and I would like to share a few with you here in this blog space.

For about the last seven years both my husband and I have been fascinated by Mount Everest, the people who climb it and the culture that surrounds it. Knowing as we do that neither of us will probably ever have the nerve to attempt to climb it (not to mention the $70,000-$100,000 per person a single summit attempt would cost!) we’ve contented ourselves with watching from afar via the internet and cable television. We’ve watched every TV special on the mountain that we’ve been able to get our hands on, many of them multiple times. This is why I was so delightfully surprised when I came across a folder containing correspondence and transcripts from the NOVA episode entitled “Everest: The Death Zone,” a show I’ve seen at least a few times.

David Carter, a climber on the NOVA expedition, had been suffering from chest congestion for a day or so prior his team’s planned summit attempt but felt that the problem wasn’t severe enough to warrant abandoning his second attempt at reaching the peak of Everest – he had already been forced to do so in 1991 after he broke a rib from coughing. After nine hours of climbing, the team reached the summit. After the compulsory celebrations and raising of flags, the team began heading down the mountain the camp where they would spend the night. Unfortunately it was then, on the way down from 32,000 feet, that Carter realized that his breathing was getting worse. His fellow teammate, Ed Viesturs, was struggling to get him down out of “the Death Zone,” the term used by climbers to refer to the height above which no human can survive due to lack of oxygen in the surrounding air – generally around 26,000 feet. However, Carter was sluggish and felt as though he was choking. Eventually Viesturs called in for help:

Ed Viesturs: Get Howard! It’s Ed. Please try to get him for me! This is Ed.

Howard Donner: What’s going on, Ed?

Ed Viesturs: David’s dying! It’s like his throat’s obstructed.

Howard Donner: Okay. Ed, do you know how to do a Heimlich maneuver? Over.

Watch the exchange as it unfolded on “NOVA Everest: The Death Zone”

It is suspected that, in addition to the lung infection previously mentioned, Carter may have suffered from high altitude pulmonary edema or “HAPE.” The condition is caused by increased pressure in capillaries in the lungs; forcing fluids from the vessels into the lungs’ alveoli and eventually drowning the victim in his/her own fluids. Viesturs said over the radio that he performed the Heimlich maneuver multiple times and that Carter was soon breathing more easily. The pair continued their descent and eventually made it down the mountain and back to their homes safely.

In the letter seen here Dr. Heimlich describes how Viesturs’ use of the Heimlich maneuver for high altitude pulmonary edema is similar to his recommended use of the Heimlich maneuver for acute asthma attacks and how the moment David Carter said “You saved my life” during a radio interview was one of the “most meaningful moments” of Dr. Heimlich’s life.


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