How to Recognize Signs of Choking and What to Do!

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Foodie with Family

This picture is me alive with Diane Cu of White on Rice couple on Sunday afternoon. Phew. “Say WHAT?” you ask.

You might think that as a professional food writer, recipe developer and cooking instructor (and 38-year-old human) that by this point in life, I might just have a handle on how to eat properly, too. Right?

Well, in fact, no. Clearly I don’t. Let me back this story up a bit, though…

Last Friday I flew down to Orlando to attend the Food Blog Forum. This fabulous event put on by Jaden and Scott Hair, and Diane Cu and Todd Porter was to be attended and spoken at by a virtual who’s who of bloggers I had respected for years. Among those bloggers were David Leite, Elise Bauer, Julie Deily, and Lindsay Landis. I was thrilled to get the chance to connect with them at the Friday reception and went into Saturday’s classes ready to absorb all the wisdom they had to share with the rest of us. I connected with Elise Saturday morning just prior to breaking out of sessions for lunch. I’d wanted to thank her face to face for years for pointing me toward my beloved homemade root beer recipe and was overjoyed that I had finally delivered those thanks along with a hug.

I made a bee line for the conference room two doors over where lunch was being presented with bells and whistles and illuminated Tinkerbell plate flair by Disney’s children’s menu chefs. The room buzzed with the happy sounds of a 150 or so munching, laughing and chatting food bloggers and service professionals.

Hors d'oeuvres

Image: Richard Munckton via Flickr

I laid my hands on a delicious looking plate of food and attempted the trifecta of talking, walking and eating. That’s the first place I went wrong. Since I wasn’t at the table, I didn’t cut my food as small as I normally would. It wasn’t a slab of food I popped into my mouth, but it wasn’t a genteel bite either. And in a moment where I’m still not clear what happened, that bite of food slid to the back of my throat and lodged itself firmly over my windpipe.

I could not breathe. I could not cough. I could not speak.

I was completely terrified.

I then did what every single food service training and first aid training I’ve ever been to warned against doing. I tried to save face (because I knew that food had to come out of my mouth instead of going down) by walking briskly toward the door where I could hopefully cough and propel it outward. In my single-minded race for the door, I laid my hand on the back of Elise Bauer -- whom I had waited so long to thank -- and pushed her to the side.

I got out the door and tried to cough and that’s where I knew I was in very big trouble. There was no way to cough because to cough, you have to take air in first and, baby, there was nothing coming in OR out. My head started swimming and -- this isn’t pretty, but it’s true -- my eyes watered, and I had a river of drool pouring out of my mouth because I couldn’t swallow.

I’m not going to say my life flashed before my eyes, but I will tell you at that moment when I realized it was dire, I had two thoughts: Lindy.  The boys.  Oh, and GET HELP NOW!

I ran back for the door and banged my hand as hard as I could on it to draw the attention of anyone who was nearby because I couldn’t talk. Have you ever tried to call for help and had ZERO ability to do it? That’s where I was. Thank heavens I wasn’t so far gone I couldn’t bang on a door.  A couple of chefs and Disney representatives looked my way, and I held my hands up to my throat in the Universal Sign of Distress*.

*I’m going to talk more about this in a moment. Please… if you don’t want to read anything else, scroll to the bottom and read the information I’ve linked you to below. I’m serious.

I knew the chefs would’ve had the same training over the years that I had and would know enough to grab someone who knew how to help. I couldn’t have been luckier in where I choked if I tried, even though I did everything wrong.

A chef looked at me and asked, “Are you choking?” I nodded my head emphatically.

He asked, “Do you need me to do the Heimlich?” I nodded even more emphatically and let me tell you, by that point, I knew I was close to passing out.

He came up behind me, threw five good slaps at my back between my shoulder blades, wrapped his arms around me and gave one serious push in and upwards against my diaphragm. Thank the Lord in heaven that piece of pork and potato came flying out of where it had been lodged. I spit it out, gasped for air and starting coughing HARD.

I’ve never been so happy to be drooling, have my eyes running enough to look like I was sobbing, and experiencing a coughing jag in public in all of my life. God love those Disney representatives. They helped me to a chair, brought me two glasses of water and kept their eyes on me while I gathered my wits and slowed the coughing. I assured them I was okay then and did not need medical attention (Yes. They asked. Repeatedly.)

I walked to the bathroom on rubbery legs to tidy myself up, then wandered back into the conference room a bit dazed. I found Elise and apologized for pushing her aside explaining what had happened while trying to keep my hands from shaking. She looked at me shocked. “I had no idea that was going on, Rebecca!” was her response. What was so clear and dramatic in my brain went unnoticed by all but one friend who had thought I was running for the door to throw up. Was it because no one there was observant enough? NO. I cannot emphasize that enough. It was because I totally endangered myself by trying to look normal and hide to preserve my dignity.

Can I say that again? I endangered myself.

How to Recognize Signs of Choking in Someone Else

Have I freaked you out at all? Do you know how to tell if someone is choking? Sometimes it’s obvious, but if someone tries to hide what’s going on like I did, it may be harder to tell. Here are some signs or symptoms of choking, courtesy of the Better Health Channel.

  • Universal Sign of Distress. This is when someone has wide eyes and is clutching their throat with one or both hands.
  • Gagging. If the person appears to be gagging or retching and nothing but drool or nothing at all is coming out.
  • Coughing. If someone coughs uncontrollably this can be a sign of choking.
  • Wheezing. If a person appears to be struggling mightily for breath or is audibly wheezing this can be a sign that the airway is blocked or partially blocked.
  • Watery eyes.
  • Red face.
  • Inability to talk at all or at full volume.
  • Panicked or distressed behaviour.

…This is all assuming you are the one who isn’t choking. But what if the tables are turned and you’re in the position I’m in? Many people clutch their necks as a reflex. I did not. I had to tell myself to do it.

What Do You Do if YOU are the Person Choking?

  • Do NOT leave a room to avoid embarrassment. Stay where other people are and get their attention immediately.
  • Try to breathe, swallow, cough or say a few words.
  • Do your best to remain calm.
  • If you’re not doing it as an impulse, raise your hands to your neck and use hand gestures to indicate to those around you what is happening. This is recognized universally as a sign of choking and is referred to as the Universal Sign of Distress.
  • Cooperate with the person helping you.

So What Do You Do if You’re Alone and Choking?

  • I won’t lie. This is now one of my personal nightmares. Take a moment or two to familiarize yourself with the Mayo Clinic’s recommendations on how to clear an obstruction from your airway by yourself. It may sound like a macabre use of time, but friends, it can save our life. You can’t think clearly (TRUST ME) when this is happening to you and you won’t have time to Google it. It’s just good sense to know how to take care of yourself in that situation. Take a few minutes and talk to your kids about how to do it. (That's another personal nightmare, let me tell you.) Don’t regret not taking this chance.

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