Dr. Heimlich, Ebola, and the Strange Case of Jennifer Herpes

Posted on June 2, 2016


The 96-year-old inventor of the Heimlich Maneuver, Dr. Henry Heimlich used the technique last week to save an 87-year-old woman choking on a piece of meat. This was the first time Dr. Heimlich had used the maneuver to save a life, though he’d used it many times to save on drinks: ‘Who wants to cough up ten bucks so the inventor of the Heimlich Maneuver can choke down a Scotch?’ That joke got so old many of his friends dreamed of choking him.

For some reason it never occurred to me that the Heimlich maneuver was probably named for a man named Heimlich. If you gave me a multiple choice test question asking ‘From where does the Heimlich Maneuver derive its name?’ Dr. Henry Heimlich would be my least likely choice:

A. The Heimlich release valve located below the sternum.
B. Tim Heimlich, 1970s-era hot dog-eating champion who choked to death at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest, sending the nation into uncontrollable grief and inspiring President Nixon to commit funds to discover a choking cure.
C. Baseball player Bobby Heimlich who figuratively ‘choked’ by letting an easy grounder dribble through his legs to cost his team the World Series.
D. Dr. Henry Heimlich.
E. All of the above.

Many critics claim this abdominal thrust technique had existed before Heimlich and thatheimkuch-doing-the-heimlich his claims of being the inventor are hard to swallow (Did you see what I did there?), but all parties can agree Henry Heimlich was the sole inventor of the name Heimlich Maneuver.

It’s widely accepted that early in his career Heimlich stole credit for an esophagus surgery technique from a Romanian doctor Dan Gavriliu. But the Gavriliu Operation doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. If you don’t have a catchy, marketable name like Heimlich or Popeil, you have no business being in the inventing game. If Dr. Dan Gavriliu were to ask my advice I’d tell him to drop the Gavriliu and go by Dr. Dan. The Dr. Dan Operation is infinitely more fun and marketable.

A lot of viruses and diseases are named after the place they were discovered. Ebola was named for the Ebola River Valley. I like to imagine there was a brief window, perhaps only a day or two, when the Ebola River Valley Tourism Board hadn’t heard about the Ebola virus, but Google trends told them ‘Ebola’ searches had spiked 1 billion percent, and everyone started high-fiving and imagining a very hefty Christmas bonus.

Americans would be furious if scientists named a killer virus after one of our rivers:

Doctor: ‘There’s no easy way to say this, but you have Mississippi.’
Patient: ‘Is it fatal?’
Doctor: ‘Unfortunately, there’s a lot we still don’t know about Mississippi, for example, how to spell it.’

Legionnaires disease was named for an outbreak of a new infectious bacterium discovered at an American Legion convention at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. Having an infectious disease named for your organization can’t be a positive for recruitment, and I assume America’s soldiers got the shaft because there were a dozen PR reps calling the Center for Disease Control and begging, ‘Please, please, please not Bellevue-Stratford Hotel disease or Philadelphia disease.’

What are the criteria for naming a disease? Disneyland was in the news last year for a measles outbreak. With so many drooling, sneezing children compacted in small spaces, how long before a new virus is discovered in the Magic Kingdom? How long before kids start coming down with the Pirates of the Caribbean virus or Haunted Mansion disease? How will we teach our children to take precautions against a virus that sounds so fun?

If you want my opinion it seems pretty lazy and unfair to name a virus after the place it was discovered. At least that’s the complaint I keep hearing from my friend Jennifer Herpes.

Did you watch the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN last week? You might enjoy this post from the archives on the national spelling bee and my own brush with fame as the 3rd, 4th, and 5th-grade spelling bee champion: Spelling Bee Stings It’s just as relevant today, especially because every national winner has continued to be Indian-American.

Posted in: humor