Thanks to an angel today, I am alive to write this. Something just changed inside of me.
At about 3 p.m. ET, I was walking through New York's East Village, on my way back to work from Tompkins Park on 10th Street & Avenue A, where a Mets pitcher had been making an appearance.
I grabbed a fast slice of white pizza and a soft drink on the way, thinking I would wolf it down as I walked many blocks, working on deadline the next few hours. On the sidewalk of Second Avenue near Sixth Street, I suddenly began choking like a dummy on a piece of the crust.
For what seemed like an eternity, I had no capacity to breathe. All my own attempts at inhaling or dislodging the object were failing. I was not panicking but I was starting to sweat. There was an outdoor cafe to my left. I saw a table of four, and I slapped a woman on the back and motioned with my own fist, hitting it against my back, hoping she would realize what I needed her to do. I was unable to speak. There was confusion. It was a typical weekday afternoon in New York City.
A crowd gathered. People must have seen horror on my face. Someone said they would call 911. The woman had no idea what to do. "Is he choking?" I was trying to stay composed, more worried with every failed inhale. At this rate, the next step was going to be my face turning blue (cyanosis).
A man got up from the table. He began attempting the Heimlich Maneuver, standing behind me and trying forceful abdominal thrusts upward with interlocked fists.
The first two or three tries were unsuccessful. It's not like you are holding your breath, because you never started with a big gulp of air. You start at neutral, and then gradually you are denying life to your lungs. The clock was ticking at that point. I wasn't thinking ahead, just thinking about then and there.
Then the man, about my size, leaned in, making me do the same. That may have been the difference between me living and dying, or living with brain damage, awaiting an ambulance in busy streets. Leaning forward instead of standing straight up, it must have dislodged, because I coughed, and there was the slightest passage of air. Then a little more, and then a little more. My eyes were watering badly. A waiter was bringing me water, people were talking to me, and I was just trying to come to my senses.
Then it happened, the real reason I am writing this.
The woman at the table pointed at the man's T-shirt, where it said "Fire Rescue" on the left breast. "That explains it," she told him.
I cannot explain how I felt at that moment. I realized that I had an angel. He was apparently an off-duty FDNY man, who just happened to be there right then, the same way an outdoor cafe just happened to be there on that block, instead of a row of closed doors or nothingness.
"I feel like I owe you," I told the stranger. I didn't know what else to say.
"No, you don't owe me anything," he replied.
I started to feel embarrassed by the gathered crowd, one of those Snickers minutes where you want to get away. I was wiping my nose and wiping my eyes and trying to gather myself.
I reached out my hand to the man.
"Mike," he said.
"Mark," I replied. "Thanks."
I walked away. Something else strange then happened. Two blocks from my destination, a total stranger walking in the other direction on the sidewalk said in passing, "How are you doing?" New Yorkers don't talk to each other on the streets. We're famous for that. It was like he knew. Then something else happened after that; I go to the Union Square subway station, and there is a typical musician performing underground . . . only this one is playing "Amazing Grace" on a Chinese musical instrument. I went over and put money in his case. I got on the train and went back to the office, tried to concentrate.
I am writing this because I can tell you from experience that only one person in that immediate vicinity knew to use the Heimlich Maneuver or any other method. I later read about it on Wikipedia, and saw that there are steps a choking victim can take himself or herself, so I am providing the link here. I read that you actually are supposed to try slapping the victim on the back first; he did not do that, might have helped. That is actually what I was motioning the woman, anyone, to do in the first place.
I feel that I have a calling now to raise awareness of how to help a choking victim. We've all been there, but I have never been there to that degree, where there was no way air was coming, where you had a real question about where this was going, but you attend to the matter at hand for survival. I kept thinking later about how you don't panic in that situation, when it would seem natural to do so.
I hope you will take three to five moments of your life and just read, or re-read, all the basics that you should know -- what to do if you are choking, what to do if you see someone choking. Also, I think it is important to know how to COMMUNICATE that you are choking. This is one problem I had. I have since learned that the universal distress signal for choking is clutching your throat with both hands. I did not think of that. I also will take more care with eating as well, never in such a hurry to eat because of work deadlines.
I am going to be running the 2012 ING New York City Marathon in November, my 10th marathon, and I am pretty sure I will be thinking about Mike and about how I might use that platform of the world's greatest marathon to help raise awareness of helping choking victims. I am alive thanks to an angel.
READ ABOUT THE HEIMLICH MANEUVER