A Choking Chain of Events

Bubble gum machines were quite popular when I was a kid. Whenever our family was out and about, my dad habitually stopped, checked his pockets for change, and then treated us to some bubble gum. One day, as Dad dropped a penny in a nearby machine, my younger brother Dan's eyes opened widely in anticipation of the upcoming treat. Somehow his eyes got even bigger when the round bubble gum ball entered his mouth. This time, however, his wide-eyed response wasn't because of excitement – it was due to fear. He could not breathe!

We were shopping in a grocery store at the time and my younger brother was positioned in the front area of the cart where little ones frequently sat. I'm guessing he was about 18 months old or so, and I would have been just over seven years old at the time.

Dr. Henry Heimlich was alive during this era but apparently my dad was not familiar with his famous maneuver to aid those who might be choking. So, Dad promptly pulled Dan out of his buggy seat and turned him upside-down. While holding him by his ankles with one hand, he used his other hand to firmly thump Dan on his back with an open palm.

To me, in my panic-stricken state, I thought Dad hit him fairly hard. After all, that hand, on more than one occasion, was used to bring me to my senses if Dad thought I was misbehaving. Before I realized what was really transpiring, that bubble-gum ball came flying out of Dan's windpipe and went bouncing along on the tile floor of the grocery store.

Lesson learned
My brother's emotional state fluctuated from eager anticipation, to tacit terror, and then to hysterical screaming within a time span of no more than 10 seconds. His crying had nothing to do with the lost bubble-gum ball – although that is what I first thought during this mayhem. At any rate, this entire episode remained rooted in my mind for the rest of my life.

And Dad never again gave any of his kids a treat shaped like a sphere. From that day on, he would crunch future bubble-gum balls or candy with his own teeth before plopping it into any child's mouth.

Six or seven years would go by before the lessons learned that day came into play again. This time, I was home alone and had been given orders to sweep out the garage while my dad and mom were gone to run errands and do some shopping.

What goes in round, comes out round
It was also about the time when this young teen could not get enough of those round, red fire-balls, seasoned in hot cinnamon. It seemed I was addicted to them. I discovered that I could save time by squeezing the cellophane wrapper between my thumb and fore-finger and instantaneously send the sphere onto my tongue with ease. Dissolving slowly, the candy lasted for a good while, but that didn't stop me from consuming more than I should on any given day.

While attending to my sweeping, I took one of these treats from my pocket and promptly pinched its wrapper, which sent the fireball flying into my mouth. Immediately I realized I was in trouble. But even though I was unable to breathe, I did not panic at all. Recalling the memory of my dad and brother's bubble gum incident, I calmly set the broom down on the garage floor. I then ran backwards as hard as I could, slamming my back against the wall. I am amazed to this day that I had the presence of mind to pull my chin and head down as my body made contact with the concrete blocks. I knew that if my head struck the wall that I might be in double trouble. I surely didn't want to knock myself out while attempting to discharge the blockage.

The fireball flew out of my windpipe with enough force that it hit the opposite wall without bouncing on the floor. And I was lucky that the procedure was successful. After all, I had no Plan B on which I could rely.

Enter, Dr. Heimlich
Years later, I did become acquainted with the Heimlich Maneuver that stressed the proper way to assist another person who might be choking. The popularity of the procedure came into public light in the mid 1970's.

A colleague of mine used the nifty knack to dislodge candy stuck in a student's windpipe one day. The teacher related the incident to other faculty members and said he was amazed as to the velocity at which the candy was forced out of the trachea. I remember thinking though, that it would not have been applicable to my fireball scenario since I was alone in the garage that day.

Thank goodness I came across a photo and directions somewhere in which a person can apply pressure on his own diaphragm by lying belly down over the back of a sturdy chair. If choking, the directions stressed that the subject could achieve the same results as Dr. Heimlich's suggested method. This way, however, the person who is choking can remove the blockage even if he or she is alone.

Sure enough, that knowledge came in handy again.

Batting, three for three
This time, a piece of round Christmas candy slipped down the wrong pipe in my throat. There I was, alone, in a garage again, and unable to breathe. With no fear, I promptly plopped down fairly hard on the back of a wooden chair. I succeeded in landing with my abdomen, just under my ribs, making firm contact with the highest point on the back of the chair. And once again, the sphere came flying out. Had it not worked, I was prepared to give the procedure another try.

I'm happy to say that I'm still alive and kicking today. I have had no more close calls regarding food, candy or gum lodging in my trachea. If faced with a similar situation in the future, I hope that my previous experiences with these procedures will pay dividends once again. I can only hope and pray that I won't panic, and that I won't choke under pressure, either.

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA