It is a day like any other. You wake up and begin to get ready for work like you do each day without ever knowing this day would be different . You are listening to your favorite morning radio show as you get ready to conquer another day. As you take a bite of your bagel something you hear on the radio makes you laugh. When you laugh a piece of the bagel goes onto the back of your throat. As you feel it hit the back of your throat there is a moment of instant panic as your ability to draw in a air disappears. Your heart begins to race as you desperately try to cough but can't. You are choking.
Of all of the many lifesaving techniques we teach at Life First Training Center, relief of a foreign body airway obstruction (relief of choking) is one of the most common emergencies that our students will come across in their own lives. Almost everyone will choke or be present when someone else chokes at least one time in their life. It is vital that everyone knows what to do when a choking emergency occurs.
At each of our CPR classes, we hand out a paper where students can tell us how they have used their CPR or First Aid training in a real life situation. We have received countless stories from students on how the training has impacted their lives. What we hear about most frequently however are stories about choking. It seems like almost everyone has at least one choking story. Do you have one? I know for myself, I have many. As the owner of Life First Training Center, I have always had an interest in health and safety since childhood. This may come from the fact that my own sister died as an infant from drowning. I took my first CPR class when I was only about 11 years old as part of a junior life-guarding program. Back then the CPR training consisted of training on one full size Annie manikin for everyone. We would take turns by wiping her mouth each time with an alcohol pad and going around in a circle practicing as the instructor lectured. Wow have times changed. Training of course is much more involved and polished now, including video instruction, advanced manikins, cleaner practices, etc. I went on to take many CPR classes and became an instructor when I was around 20 yrs old. I won't say how old I am now but let's just say, it's been awhile since that first class when I was 11.
I remember choking myself 3 different times as a child. Well, the first time I actually do not remember because I was a toddler but my mother had told me a story of how I choked on an orange, which she was able to pull from my throat. I do remember choking again when I was only around 5 yrs old. I choked on a potato chip. I can actually remember that feeling of what it was like to feel the chip stuck in my throat. I also remember my brother carrying me as I was crying after the incident because my throat hurt so bad. The 3rd time I choked as a child was actually a rather ironic story because I choked on a jaw breaker candy. What makes that story ironic is that my mother never let me have jawbreakers. I remember asking her if I could get one out of the candy machine at the grocery story on many occasions and she would always say no because I could choke. That was back when you could actually use a penny to buy something. You could buy a gumball for a penny back then. Finding a penny on the street was cool back then. Now, not so exciting to see one glimmering on the ground. I was probably around 10 when the 3rd choking incident happened. I was at a softball game and one of my team members offered me a jaw breaker. I remember hesitating to accept because I knew my mom did not want me to have it but I thought, "hey she will never know". I took the jawbreaker and at some point sure enough it went to the back of my throat and I began to choke. I remember being absolutely terrified. When it happened there were no adults around and I could not get it to come back up to my mouth. In an act of complete desperation and total panic of needing to breathe, I swallowed it. The jaw breaker hurt so bad as it slowly slid down my throat. Such a terrible feeling. As it reached the end of my throat, I actually felt it get stuck again. By absolute crazy luck, it got stuck in a way the 2nd time where I could get a little bit of air so I was able to breathe. Eventually it dissolved a little more which was enough to get it down completely. What I know now that I didn't then is how incredibly lucky I was that day. If it had completely blocked my airway when I swallowed it down, I would definitely have stopped breathing and because of how far down it had gone, attempts to relieve it would most likely have been unsuccessful.
Aside from my stories of choking myself, I have been present many times when others have choked. I have many stories of choking but I will just share a couple. In my late teens I worked in a childcare center. One day when I was at work, the children were eating goldfish crackers for snack. These children were only about 1-1.5 yrs old and they were all sitting in those clip onto the table baby chairs. The assistant director of the center was standing at the doorway speaking to me when we both noticed one of the babies turning blue in the chair. I grabbed the baby out of the chair and flipped him over and gave several back blows and out came the cracker. As I held the crying baby I remember looking up at the assistant director. We both had looks of shock over what had just happened and I remember her saying, "wow, good job. You just saved his life." Many years later I was working at Stanford's Children's Hospital when an infant choked. I was working in the Pediatric Oncology unit that day and myself and another nurse were standing over the bed of a very sick baby who was only a few months old and hooked up to every machine in the book. We were doing vital signs and checking the monitors and such when suddenly the baby turned blue. The monitors began to alarm as her oxygen and respiratory rate plummeted. We both looked at each other with fear in our faces. The other nurse began to frantically get the suction machine going. I remember grabbing the baby, tubes and all and flipping her over to give back blows. A chunk of mucous flew out of her mouth. Instantly her color returned and numbers went up on the monitor. I have also used my training on choking with both of my own children and in several other situations, as well.
Of course not all stories have a happy ending. One story that I have shared with students is one that involved a 12 yr old boy who choked. That story sticks out in my head because it really does remind you how these things can happen when you least expect them to. In my younger years I worked on an ambulance. This story was of a young boy who was at his grandparents house after school. He choked on a burrito and stopped breathing. His heart stopped as well. Though his heart was able to be re-started, his breathing did not returnand he was put on life support at the hospital. He died several days later in the hospital. I can still see his face. I remember looking at him and thinking how just hours before he was at school playing with the kids like every other day. When I would share that story at classes, I of course never shared his name or any personal details but I knew the story helped students to connect with the importance of the training. A few years after the incident occurred, I was teaching a class. After the class, a women came up to me and said, "I know the boy you were taking about". It turned out she was a family friend. We both teared up as we spoke about him. She thanked me for sharing his story because she knew it would help to save others.
I think choking is one of those things that most people do not think will happen to them, until one day it does. When we teach to children we put a large emphasis on choking prevention. We tell them such things as to take small bites, chew their food up before swallowing, don't make people laugh with food in their mouth, don't lay down or run around with things in your mouth, keep chokable items out of the reach of children, etc, etc. One of our young students ended up using the training he learned to save the school librarian when she choked on an apple in front of him. Without a doubt this is training that everyone should have. Having the knowledge of something as simple as back blows on a infant or abdominal thrusts on an older child/adult can really save a life. Even if your job does not require this training, consider taking a course for your own knowledge. Our courses are very reasonably priced. Our instructors are supportive and encouraging. Consider taking out a few hours to make it to an upcoming class. Please encourage others to learn CPR and First Aid, as well. I hope that you never have a choking story occur in your future but in case you do, I hope you are prepared.