Andersen: Choked up by the Heimlich |

Andersen: Choked up by the Heimlich

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

An attractive young woman wrapped her arms around me — and jerked! Jayne may have saved my life on the Fourth of July. I’ve been choked up with gratitude ever since.

Getting a glimpse of the great beyond is transformative, so I’m contemplating adjustments of personal significance that may change my life. Does it need change? Just ask my conscience.

It happened during a dinner party where I was enjoying a vodka tonic with my wife, Lu. We were standing by the appetizers. I picked up a black olive, popped it into my mouth, chewed, swallowed and began speaking at the same time. Operator error!

A piece of olive lodged in my windpipe, and my breathing stopped. A rush of terror surged through me like an electric shock. A terrible gasping sound came from my throat. People began looking in my direction.

“Can I help?” asked my wife plaintively. I waved her off, struggling for enough breath to avoid passing out. I suffered through another long, gasping inhale. Several others quickly gathered around, their faces reflecting my own horror.

Unable to clear my throat, I made the sign of choking with both hands open on my chest. Out of the group stepped Jayne. She moved behind me and executed a brief and seemingly effortless Heimlich. One small thrust, and I could breathe again.

Feeling faint, I moved indoors and sat quietly, my wife looking on with grave concern. She was frightened because my face was still ashen. My color slowly returned, as did my equilibrium, but I could not stop thinking that, moments ago, I could have met my end.

I pictured the Monday issue of The Aspen Times, with a bold headline (above the fold): “All Aspen mourns beloved columnist” or “Andersen’s last words: ‘Urrgghhh!’”

I hadn’t experienced a light at the end of a tunnel, and I didn’t see my life pass before me. But I was in awe that I had come so close to dropping dead in what I now refer to as our hosts’ “breathtaking” home.

Later, I found Jayne and thanked her for her courage. I offered her my lifelong servitude, and she laughed. Her husband said that would not be necessary. I thought it could be interesting because Jayne is an artist and I could become her dutiful studio slave — probably more of a liability for her than a blessing.

Later, I learned from her husband, a professor and author, that Jayne had, two years before, suffered a choking experience like mine. A man had administered the Heimlich, but she never got his name.

“Now she has paid it forward,” her husband said.

I emailed Jayne because I wanted to offer something beyond a mere thank-you. I suggested a personal, guided hike in the wilderness for her and her husband, like those I lead for the Aspen Institute and war veterans. Jayne wrote back and said my invitation was significant because she had just experienced a transcendent moment in a wildflower meadow with her two children.

“So thank you, Paul,” she replied, “for confirming the meaning in my own life.”

So how do I confirm new meaning in mine? How do I honor the rest of my life as a precious gift? With more honesty? More appreciation? Deeper immersion into life? Greater service to others?

I am indebted to Jayne and want to feel worthy of the worthiness she displayed on my behalf, a total stranger who needed the help she had once received and was able to give back. Perhaps Jayne and I are indebted to each other through a spontaneous expression of mutuality.

That should be true for us all. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, all humanity is tied together: “In a real sense all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Jayne’s destiny collided with my destiny July Fourth when I choked on an olive and she put her arms around me with a life-giving embrace. Everything changed at that moment for both of us and for those around us. As so it should be.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He can be reached by email at