Mardi’s close call

Frightening scene provides practical and personal revelations

By Mike Leonard
June 26, 2008

I see all kinds of things when I look into Mardi¹s hazel eyes: shades of blue or green, depending on the day. Silent communication signaling consternation, concern, laughter or love.

I’ve seen panic in my wife’s eyes a few times, too, over the 10 years of marriage we celebrate Friday and the six years we dated before that. But I never witnessed the help me-I’m-scared, absolute look of terror I saw last Thursday night.

She couldn’t clear her throat. She couldn’t breathe.

In an instant, we spiraled into “worst nightmare” mode. A full-blown medical emergency, in which every second matters.

It happened just that quickly.

Had we been able to choose, we might have looked for a less conspicuous setting. We were dining at the elegant Brennan’s restaurant in the New Orleans French Quarter in a gathering of newspaper columnists from across the country. It was a time for talking and laughing and catching up with colleagues we’ve known for years.

The first thing I picked up on was the low rumble of Mardi trying to clear her throat. One look into her eyes and I knew this was more than a routine, “Oops. A bit of food went down the wrong pipe.”

I grabbed a cloth napkin and held it up to her mouth. “Cough. Spit. Hack it up. It’s OK,” I said as calmly as I could as I crouched beside her and tried to discreetly position the napkin.

She tried to cough. Again and again and again.

“Stand her up,” advised someone close-by.

Mardi continued to try to cough. To breathe. A bit of fluid bubbled out. Then, nothing more.

Those beautiful hazel eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed in my arms. I strained to embrace her to hold her up.

In a flash I saw a woman rush in from my left, wrap both arms around Mardi’s abdomen, and with her hands locked together, forcefully thrust in and up. The slender, blonde-haired stranger literally lifted my wife off her feet.

I recognized that she was doing the Heimlich maneuver. Once, twice, thrice. That’s about all I remember. A bystander said later she thought it took seven or eight abdominal thrusts.

The seconds seemed like hours but the offending piece of meat in her throat finally dislodged. The ample supply of napkins put within arm’s reach helped me contain the vomit that accompanied the purge.

But we weren’t done yet.

With our Heimlich angel, Alana Brennan, supporting one side, and me on the other, we whisked Mardi away into an adjacent room where EMTs pounced on her with an oxygen mask and a barrage of questions. She fought the mask at first, explaining later that in her disorientation, the concept of putting anything over her mouth and nose only served to frighten her further.

The well-meaning emergency team wanted to take her to the hospital. And again, our Heimlich angel intervened. “She’s breathing normally. She’s fine. She doesn’t need that,” insisted Alana, a 32-year-old member of the Brennan family of restaurateurs.

She was right. Mardi was emotionally overwhelmed, but physically OK. The life-saver and choking victim clasped each other’s hands and stroked each other’s faces as both began to fully realize the gravity of what had just occurred.

Later, we were told that half of the room never saw what happened. The half that did said it was a horrifying drama they hope they never see again.

We were told that once Mardi lost consciousness, she had about two minutes before brain damage would begin. We’ve already joked that she couldn’t afford that – marrying me was evidence enough of impaired mental capacity.

Dr. Lois Lambrecht examined Mardi when we got back to town and marveled at how well she came through the experience. “The lady who did the Heimlich did it perfectly,” she said. “There was no bruising, no nothing. I ordered a chest X-ray and a check of her oxygen level, but I don’t expect to see anything.” Both tests confirmed that she is fine.

She’s not only fine, but brave. I jokingly told her, “Thanks for the column material” at some point last weekend, and later, we agreed that this was an object lesson that needed to be told. Children put foreign objects into their mouths and choke. Adults experience what Mardi did – a bite of food, an ill-timed breath, and bam! It can happen to anyone at any time.

Everyone should know CPR and emergency first aid. Mardi and I will be taking courses soon.

³It’s extremely important, Lambrecht said this week. “It’s one of those very simple first aid deals that anyone can learn. And you can save someone’s life, that’s the real message,” she said. “The science of it isn’t nearly as important as just knowing how to do it. So much good can come from it.”

As well we know.
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