Vancouver fire chief saves choking man

Molina uses Heimlich maneuver on fellow patron at restaurant

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As chief of the Vancouver Fire Department, Joe Molina doesn’t go out on calls.

So the story of how he saved a choking man’s life at a restaurant on Sunday spread quickly around City Hall on Monday, and Molina agreed to talk about it not to highlight himself as a hero, but to highlight the need for people to know how to perform simple techniques such as the Heimlich maneuver and CPR.

Deputy Chief Dan Olson said it was an example of how someone without any special equipment was able to save a life. Alas, Olson said, Molina “isn’t in every restaurant.”

Molina, 52, said it was the first time he’d used the Heimlich maneuver while off-duty in his 22-year career as a firefighter. Usually, it’s children who choke, often on hot dogs. (Olson would also like to take this opportunity to tell parents to cut hot dogs up into little pieces.)

On Sunday, Molina was at McMenamins Sand Trap Pub in Gearhart, Ore., five miles north of Seaside. He was on the patio with his girlfriend, his niece and a dog, which necessitated the outdoor seating. In his line of sight was a man in his mid-70s, and Molina heard him start to cough. The coughing grew worse. Usually the body does a good job of expelling lodged items, Molina said, but he watched as the man stood up and walked over to the railing. He was no longer coughing.

The man’s wife had left the table before the coughing started, Molina had noticed, so the man was alone. Another patron stood up and patted the man on the back, asking him if he was OK.

Molina got up, approached the man from the side and said, “Sir,” as he put his hand on his shoulders and turned him around so he could see his face.

“His lips were blue and his face was blue,” the signs of oxygen deprivation. “His eyes were bulging.”

Molina spun the man back around, stood behind him and wrapped his arms around him, making a fist with one hand and covering his fist with his other hand. With his fist below the man’s sternum and above his belly button, Molina started abdominal thrusts, in which he quickly pulled his fist inward and upward. After the fifth or sixth thrust, the offending item — a french fry — came out of the man’s mouth.

Molina said most people don’t realize how much pressure has to be exerted to force enough air out of the lungs to expel the object. He lifted the man off the ground, he said.

Referring to the man’s slight frame, Molina said he knew he risked breaking a rib but also knew he only had moments before the man would lose consciousness. Molina knew it would be harder to try and dislodge the item if the man was on the ground.

Molina had asked for someone to call 911. By the time the volunteer firefighters arrived, the man was able to talk to them and decline treatment.

Had the man been waiting on the volunteer firefighters, he would have died, Molina said.

Since the man had been temporarily deprived of oxygen, it took him a little while to recover. He was shaken up, and Molina talked him through what had happened.

The man said he was a physician and he knew when he was choking he was in serious trouble. Molina suspects the man had walked to the patio railing in an attempt to perform the maneuver on himself.

He said the man was very appreciative but also embarrassed by all the attention at the restaurant and quickly left, taking his lunch to go.

Other patrons thanked Molina, too.

“I encourage every citizen to learn CPR and the Heimlich maneuver,” Molina said.