Thomas Harpole

Choking To Death

Today we have a reading from a book published by Tom Harpole, my namesake uncle who has written for National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian Air and Space, and some other cool publications.

Tom is an interesting guy.

When I was young he would send me Christmas Cards that were signed “WOUT.” I didn't know who was sending them.

Eventually, he told me it meant ‘Weird Old Uncle Tom’ and he preferred to shorten it.

Tom also had me believe that he was 1/4 werewolf and asked me if I would tie him to a tree one night during the holidays.

In addition to living in Montana, Ireland, Alaska, and a stint in Russia, he’s been a professional writer for most of his career. Tom’s written for some famous magazines over a 20-plus-year career spanning six continents. He has also spent several hundred days, two weeks at a time, teaching writing workshops in 80-plus bush schools all over Alaska. He recently published a book called Regarding Willingness, Chronicles of a Fraught Life with River Feet Press, and you can order a physical copy on Amazon.

I enjoy sharing his work, please enjoy his published essay:

Choking Near To Death: The Auto-Heimlich

by Tom Harpole

I went to swallow some vitamins a couple of days ago that I had thrown into a sandwich bag with some chocolate-covered espresso beans. I’d left the little package in my pickup, and the capsules and candy had melted together.

So, I broke off a chunk that seemed to have about the right number of pills and chocolate coated beans and, as always, had a pint glass of water to wash the everything down. I should have chewed it a little, but I regard as kind of cool my ability to throw a dozen vitamins in my maw and flush them down easily.

But what I popped in my mouth was a wad. Not a handful of unconsolidated pills. The coalesced mass of pills and candy, roughly the size of a golf ball, went down the wrong pipe and my first startled inhalation probably lodged it more firmly in my trachea, the tube that carries air to your lungs. That was the last breath I drew for a while, and could have been the last one ever.

For reasons unknown to me still, except that I was panicked, I kind of loped around the central chimney in my house, covering perhaps four laps, while trying to retch. Finally, convinced that I’d fall over dead pretty soon because I hadn’t taken a breath during these exertions, I quit running around. Back in my kitchen, my dog Max, who’d never seen such shenanigans, had been trotting alongside me, barking.

I tried to shush him and realized that I couldn’t manage a whisper. I ended up at the sink, certain that I had just a few seconds left before I passed out and died. I balled up my fist and laid it on the edge of the kitchen counter with my thumb on top, and balled up my other fist, and set it in the notch below my breastbone, where the ribs fall away from each other, and I dropped onto it.

Dropping didn’t work. I needed to make the air left in my lungs compress explosively and dislodge the wad. I plunged desperately onto both fists, stacking up on the counter, and the clot of chocolate and vitamin capsules popped out of me. And the clod hit the window and thunked on the sink bottom, impressing me with its solidarity.

It was slimy brown. The chocolate coating looked shiny from melting slightly while it resided in my windpipe. My throat was so sore I wasn’t sure for a while if I’d gotten it all out. I knew with utter certainty that I had been just seconds away from death.

Survivor’s euphoria hadn’t kicked in yet and I felt about as alarmed as the time I had a malfunction on my main parachute. I was falling a thousand feet every six seconds and had to cut away the main chute and pull my reserve. When I was about 800 feet above the ground, I saved my own ass with 2 seconds to spare.

Similarly, this whole kitchen incident happened in roughly 60 seconds. There was absolutely no time to seek help. I spent many years as a volunteer EMT, but I had never considered Heimlicing myself.

Please, dear readers, practice this. Try that move right now. Ball up your fist and place it beneath the center of your ribs. Keep your elbows tucked in so they don’t spread the weight along your lower ribs. Push up and in, and feel your diaphragm. Even a little push will make you expel some air. Then try stacking your fists on a countertop or chair back and see how it feels to really make some air move.

That action multiplied by adrenaline and desperation should keep you from choking to death if you’re alone.

And of course, practice doing the Heimlich on another human. I did it once. Nominally trained in the exigencies of the procedure in a breakfast joint in Bend, Oregon, renowned for its huge platters of food.

A corpulent, rotund fellow stood up near me and was clutching his throat and obviously needed the maneuver. I approached him from behind and told him I was going to help him. I asked him to bend forward slightly and I was able to, barely able, to stretch my arms around his ample girth and find the spot and give him a hard thrust at the diaphragm.

A piece of sausage about the size of half a bratwurst popped out, accompanied with some gastric fluids, and skidded and bounced across the table where a family of four blonde people were breakfasting. Whereupon they stood and marched out of the restaurant while experimenting with various manifestations of being grossed out.

A young waitress walked up to me and I thought she was going to thank me for saving this glutton who had sat back down lugubriously eyeing his half empty plate.

She said, “Mister, next time aim him at a wall or a door or someplace.”

My XXXL patient looked at the remains of his breakfast and bemoaned, “My throat’s too sore to finish.”

I didn’t buy his breakfast, but to placate the stiffed waitress, I bought the blonde family’s unfinished eats and left a big tip. Shaken and chastened, I could finally empathize with the big chowhound’s sore throat lament.

I beheld the deadly chocolate wad in that sink and paced around and composed myself somewhat, and thought about the irony of dying from swilling candy and vitamins.

Then I thought about not being more involved in the world around me. So, I began writing this monograph, this caveat, and quick lesson. Then the phone rang, and my musical pal Bruce Anfinsen, who spends his winters entertaining guests at Lone Mountain and minding his team of great Belgian geldings, asked if I wanted to come by and sing and play some tunes.

He noted the rasp in my voice, and asked, “what’s up?”

I told him what I’d just gone through, and then I heeded his suggestion:

“Well, hell, Harp,” Bruce said, “if you just saved your life, take yourself out for a beer.”

The End.