Wednesday, February 21

Strangers saved me from choking to death – twice. Everyone should learn first aid | Simon Hattenstone

The first time I almost choked to death was eight years ago. I’d just interviewed Gordon Brown and had a big barney with him. I got to see his famous temper in full fury when I asked him about Iraq while he wanted to talk about the Scottish referendum.

I was upset. It was pissing down, dark, and I ended up in a Glasgow curry house by myself. I phoned up Murdo, the photographer on the assignment, while I was eating and took him through the interview bit by a disastrous bit. A piece of naan stuck in my throat. Murdo was on the end of the line, hearing me retching. Then choking.

I stumbled over to the bar, managed to force out the word “wa-er” and pointed to the tap. The waitress started slowly filling a pint glass to the top. The room was spinning, and I was about to pass out. I remember so clearly what was going through my head – I’m hundreds of miles from home, alone, I’ve had a standup row with one of Britain’s few political giants, and my partner Diane and I aren’t married so she might lose the house because of inheritance tax. What a shit way to die.

I was waiting for the inevitable when a waiter wrapped me in his arms, and whacked me in my abdomen. Once, twice, thrice, four times and then it flew out across the room – the naan that was determined to see me off.

My throat was too scratched to speak properly. I thanked him as best as I could, then I sat down and wept. The shock was so huge that I didn’t even feel the pain. I returned to my table and just sat there till the restaurant closed. The waiter asked if I was OK, ordered me a cab, and I thanked him again for saving my life.

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When I woke up the next day, my ribs were agony. However I moved, it hurt. But it seemed a small price to pay. I returned home, and never mentioned it to my family. I thought they would never let me go away on a job again. So I winced in silence, told them I’d slept badly.

The least I could have done is taken a first aid course so I could help save someone when the same thing happened to them. But I didn’t.

Last month, my daughter Maya and I met my friend Priscilla in a London pub. It was the first time Priscilla had been out to eat since the pandemic started and we were determined to make a good time of it. I ordered starters, and the best steak in the house. After the first course, I received bad news – a cousin had died. I went outside to tell my mum and sister, and returned to the table.

The steak had arrived – the thickest, juiciest steak you’ve ever seen. I talked about the call, got a bit emotional, and popped a bit of steak into my mouth and chewed. But not enough. This time round I knew that there was no way it was going down naturally or with water.

I headed straight for the bar, again. I couldn’t get a single word out this time, I was losing oxygen so quickly. I pointed to my back, started hitting it, miming a plea for help. The trouble is when you’re choking you look batty or dangerous – the kind of person you want to steer well clear of. And they did. Priscilla tried to Heimlich me, but she did not have the strength or know how. I was turning blue. Maya was watching. It was awful.

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Priscilla screamed that I was choking. Everybody in the packed pub looked up, stared at me, and did nothing. I stopped panicking. I just had a dreadful sense of resignation – it would be all over in a minute or so, life is good, I don’t want to die.

Then I felt myself being grabbed from behind. A clenched fist locked into a hand wrapped tight around my abdomen – in and up it thrust, in and up, again and again. On the fifth thrust the piece of steak shot out with a splattering of sicky phlegm. Everybody in the pub clapped, which was incredibly gracious of them considering I must have put them off their meal.

I lay on the floor exhausted. Maya was in tears, being comforted by a stranger. Priscilla and the waitress helped me up. I went outside, and we sat in silence. When I was in a fit state I went into the pub and asked who was my saviour. The responsible man told me he’d never done the Heimlich manoeuvre before, and that it was only when nobody else came forward that he thought he’d best have a try. My hero.

I thought that being saved from choking once was lucky; twice was tempting fate. It was time to learn how to look after myself and others. I watched videos about how to do the Heimlich manoeuvre on othersand one showing how to heimlich yourself using a chair – same principle, into your abdomen and upwards.

According to recent Office for National Statistics figures, an average of 351 people died every year in the UK as a result of choking, and further analysis of reports published by coroners suggests the true toll is being hidden. Research commissioned by the Red Cross showed that 19 out of 20 of adults would be unable to save lives in first aid emergencies. The Red Cross, St John Ambulance and British Heart Foundation have called for it to be compulsory for every child to receive an hour of first aid education every year as part of their PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) education.

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It makes sense. It’s empowering, socially responsible, and saves lives. I would add that it should be compulsory for at least one member of staff on duty in eating or drinking establishments to know how to carry out the Heimlich manoeuvre.

As for me, I’m off to book a first aid course.

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