Henry Heimlich used the lifesaving technique that bears his name to rescue a fellow senior last month. Depending upon whether you believe some of the current press accounts or his Wikipedia page, it was either the first or second time the 96-year-old surgeon was thus called to action. The event occurred in a Cincinnati assisted-living home, where Dr. Heimlich saved 87-year-old Patty Ris. "God put me in this seat next to you," she wrote him in a thank-you note.
That's quite a storybook ending, but the saga reminded me of my own close encounter with the good doctor.
In 1993, I left a federal position to which I'd been appointed by the administration of George H.W. Bush to join the legendary James E. Beasley in the practice of trial law. Our introduction came when I sought his legal advice after Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez wrote about me, questioning whether I'd ever "find honest work." I thought he was calling me dishonest, and contacted Beasley, who'd earned quite a reputation handling defamation actions. Beasley said he'd take the case - and he also hired me. (No lawsuit was ever filed, though. Months after I'd joined him in practice Beasley said to me: "You walk down the street thinking about that column. Nobody else does.")
One day soon after my arrival at the firm, he handed me a case.
The matter concerned a Philadelphia man who'd choked to death at an all-you-can-eat buffet in the city. Beasley had accepted the case more to create case law than to earn any fee. His success had enabled him that type of case selection.
Beasley was angered that a restaurant employee who witnessed the death was reportedly not permitted by a manager to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Beasley wanted to establish a duty on Pennsylvania restaurants - similar to one in New York - to perform the maneuver. But when the restaurant owner turned out to be a Florida corporation and the case was moved to federal court (where no state law could be created), Beasley lost his appetite for the file and handed it to the new guy.
This case about a man's tragic passing in a public place had more than its share of characters and drama and was my initiation into the practice of law. I struggled to find the critical witness - the cashier - but local celebrity sleuth Russell Kolins did - in prison. My concerns about her credibility were offset by the discovery that she was CPR-trained and carried a certification (including Heimlich) in her wallet.
There was also the fact that the decedent had been eating corned beef in the men's room, apparently so as not to be seen by his dining partner, a girlfriend who was vigilant about his weight. The mention of her presence didn't sit well with his adult children. Neither did my reluctance to assert a lost earnings claim for their father's estate, as his business had been under federal investigation at the time of his demise.
To top things off, the District Court was involved in a pilot program experimenting with cameras in the courtroom.
Rookie lawyer or not, I knew that at trial I'd need to introduce one of the ubiquitous posters showing how the Heimlich maneuver is performed. Having tracked one down, I noted that its disclaimer included a reference to the Heimlich Institute and an Ohio telephone number. I called in the hope of obtaining additional materials to explain the method to a jury. I'll never forget when, after explaining my purpose to the female voice at the end of the line, she replied: "Oh, Dr. Heimlich would be most interested in this."
Dr. Heimlich? I was a complete knucklehead. It never occurred to me that the procedure was named for an American physician, much less that he was alive.
Up until this point, the very able Philadelphia defense attorney representing the buffet, James Bodell, had been a gentleman but outwardly dismissive of my case. Now, after the resources of the Beasley firm enabled me to retain Heimlich as a plaintiff's expert who would explain his method to the jury, his guffaws abated. Heimlich's expert report was attached to the pretrial memo I filed with Judge Jan E. "Bud" DuBois. When we met in chambers, DuBois informed Bodell and me that Court TV had requested to televise Heimlich's testimony.
Soon thereafter, the matter resolved. And where Heimlich's witness fee had been paid but his Philadelphia appearance was not necessary, I was able to cajole him to appear on my radio show, where he explained his discovery of the method in 1974. The audience seemed appreciative of his good work, except for one man who wrote to me challenging the authenticity of Heimlich's discovery. Strangely, the "skeptic" was his son.
Not long thereafter, I became engaged to my wife. Bodell was kind to write, in jest, and offer a discount on the use of the buffet for our reception. We passed.
Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124 and seen hosting "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.