By Frank Lewis
A West Portsmouth man’s medical case history is featured in the new book “Heimlich’s Maneuvers, My Seventy Years of Lifesaving Innovation,” by Dr. Henry Heimlich. Heimlich is a thoracic surgeon best known for having developed the Heimlich Maneuver, the world’s easiest-to-learn and most universally known method to save people from choking to death on food or foreign objects.
Orville Reiser —who, as a 45-year-old teacher from Scioto County, went to see the renowned physician after having been advised to do so by a friend — had suffered respiratory paralysis as the result of being stricken with bulbar polio at the age of 16. As a result, his throat closed and he was unable to swallow.
In his book, Heimlich describes the straits Reiser was in as doctors took measures such as passing a tube down through his nose and into his esophagus. Using an acepto syringe, the hospital staff fed him liquid food through that tube. He used handkerchiefs to catch his saliva. After six weeks the tube was removed, and Reiser learned how to use a tube to feed himself. Still it impacted his life greatly.
“At 16 years old, I had the world in a jug and a cork in my hand, and it kind of jerked the rug out from under me,” Reiser said this past year. His courage became evident when he not only finished high school, but went on to attend Ohio University. Reiser said he continued to use the tube.
“Her didn’t allow it to interfere with him,” his friend, Portsmouth attorney Franklin T. Gerlach said. “He just accepted it and worked with it, thinking that nothing would ever change.”
Then, in 1971, Gerlach saw an article about Heimlich’s work and suggested Reiser, who was also a scoutmaster, contact the doctor. By that point, Heimlich said in his book, Reiser had all but given up finding a treatment for his swallowing problem. Doctors had told him that he would never swallow again due to his paralyzed pharynx
Heimlich measured the length of his esophagus by putting a tube down his throat. “I was able to determine that not only did the muscles in his mouth work find, but his esophageal muscles were also functioning, although erratically,” Heimlich said. He operated on Reiser to understand what was preventing him from swallowing. Heimlich said he found a lot of scar tissue on Reiser’s esophagus and set about to remove it. Once the scar tissue was gone, the walls of the esophagus could expand.
“I announced to the operating room staff, ‘I could drive a truck through there’” Heimlich said. “In an operation that took less than 29 minutes, the cause of Mr. Reiser’s inability to swallow food for 29 years seemed to have been corrected.”
However, a few days later it started again and he was still unable to swallow fluids and soft foods. He would start choking. Heimlich put a tube down his throat and found out there was no blockage. He resorted to a method he had used before, finger-sucking several times a day.
Reiser returned home where he continued to use the tube to feed himself, while doing the exercises Heimlich had taught him. He would try to sip milk, and found that, while not completely successful, it was going down a little further each time. He then tried some gelatin.
“I broke out in a sweat,” Reiser said. “I was working that hard at it.”
Reiser paid a follow-up visit to Heimlich who was thrilled that he could swallow. A few months later he was eating perfectly normal, and today, at 87, Reiser sais he appreciates no longer being tethered to a tube to perform the simple act of eating, referring to himself jokingly as being, “A Gerber baby for 30 years.”
“It’s humbling to know I could have starved to death in a grocery store if I didn’t have the tube with me,” Reiser said.
In his book, Heimlich sums up what has resulted from his experience with Reiser.
“I worked with other patients whose esophagi had been damaged in the same way, and they, too, relearned how to swallow,” Heimlich said. “With this consistency of success, I presented my findings at the American Broncho-Esophagological Association conference in San Francisco in 1979, and the results were published in a major medical journal 3 years later.”
Gerlach said he was honored when Reiser jotted a note to him that read, “I want to thank you one more time for your memo of Nov. 29, 1971 that guided me to Dr. Heimlich, truly a great American.”
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 252, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.