I recently completed a European speaking tour discussing transhumanism, a social movement whose primary goal is to live as long as possible through science.
Ironically, I’ll probably remember the month-long tour most for a specific 60 seconds—when I almost choked to death on thick, leathery bread in a German restaurant. This may be surprising, but the fourth-leading cause of unintentional death in America is asphyxiation from choking on food, according to the National Safety Council.
In fact, a few years ago, a high school friend of mine who was a talented athlete died when meat became lodged in his windpipe. In total, approximately 2,500 Americans perish every year from choking on food.
Most people never worry about the mechanics of how food travels from the mouth to the stomach—many of us have eaten tens of thousands of times without serious incident. But in today’s modern society, with a range of new types of foods and textures, and the fact many of us are always in a rush (like I was constantly on my speaking tour), people should consider choking dangers far more. People should also know that they can choke on a wide variety of foods that accidentally get stuck in the trachea instead of going down the esophagus.
I never imagined I could choke on bread. However, European bread is different than American bread. It’s much thicker, and when mixed with chewing and the mouth’s saliva, it can become dough-like. I was sitting and talking with my family in a small restaurant in Wolfsburg, Germany, unconsciously eating thick-crusted bread before the meal arrived, when seconds later the contents in my mouth after a swallow had accidentally lodged in the entrance of my windpipe.
To compensate, I stood up and tried to take a big breath, but this only lodged it in further. It was then I knew I was in trouble, and now couldn’t breathe at all. It happened so quick that my wife, sitting right across the table, didn’t even realize I was choking.
Generally, when people choke, the Heimlich maneuver should be performed on them immediately. This maneuver is when you wrap your arms around someone from behind them, and quickly, powerfully lift up on their uppermost stomach, trying to force stuck food to come out of them.
But smaller people have a difficult time doing this on larger people. I’m 200 pounds and over 6 feet tall, and it requires serious strength to do the Heimlich maneuver properly on me. This ultimately means my physician wife, who is a third smaller than me, may not be able to help me from choking on food with the maneuver, even if she knows it well. She simply doesn’t have the size or strength.
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In my case, I was lucky that I was able to dislodge the bread from my trachea myself by standing up, jumping, and performing a version of the Heimlich maneuver on myself. But for about a minute I panicked as I simply couldn’t get air into my body, and I was threatened with losing consciousness from doughy bread stuck just perfectly right in the wrong pipe.
People often die from choking on food because it takes so long to get oxygen back in their system. Sometimes, after passing out, choking victims must get a time-consuming ride to the hospital and even get a surgical procedure to dislodge edible objects. First-responding paramedics can’t necessarily dislodge the food themselves even with emergency breathing tubes, and so it often has to be done in the emergency room by doctors.
Even in a major city near medical services, this process can take 15, or even 30, minutes before air finally makes its way back into one’s body. It’s quite easy to die within that period. And even if someone is brought back to consciousness, choking victims may have suffered permanent and debilitating damage from lack of oxygen to organs, including severe brain damage.
Here are three simple rules for avoiding one of America’s leading killers. First: Don’t underestimate the dangers of eating, and always chew your food well. Get used to taking smaller bites and making smaller swallows as a lifetime habit.
Two: Many types of foods can cause you to choke—it’s not just meat. Don’t be fooled by foods you think are safe, like bread, carrots, and peanut butter.
Three: Know and occasionally practice the Heimlich maneuver so you can help others and even yourself in an emergency.