How A Rescue Attempt, A Death, And A TV Story Are Causing Problems For Boise

Aug 7, 2014

New York Canal
The New York Canal begins at Diversion Dam east of Boise.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

Boise’s ethics commission next week will look into a case of a city firefighter who rescued a man from an irrigation canal, who then died several days later.

In June, Boise firefighter Brent Matthews jumped into one of the area’s biggest and fastest irrigation canals to rescue a man who had fallen in. Local TV station KTVB did a story praising Matthews for his heroism.

“He’s unconscious, not breathing, no pulse,” Matthews tells reporter Scott Evans in the report. “We get him out. I had just recently read a few articles on the effectiveness of performing the Heimlich maneuver on drowning victims before starting CPR.”

The report continues. 

“The Heimlich maneuver proved effective,” Evans narrates. “Matthews was able to get a lot of water and sand out of the man’s lungs before they started CPR, which lasted for 25 minutes.”  

The Heimlich maneuver is widely practiced in choking situations. But it's not recommended for near-drowning victims. Here’s what the American Red Cross’s scientific advisory council says about the practice:

“Subdiaphragmatic abdominal thrusts are neither effective nor safe methods for attempting water removal from the airway or lungs and for the treatment of a drowned person. No scientific literature supports the idea that aspirated water obstructs these patient’s airways thus hindering ventilations….studies have shown that there is no need to clear the airway of aspirated water.” - American Red Cross

The Red Cross adds that most attempts to remove water from the breathing passages “are unnecessary and potentially dangerous.”

Despite 25 minutes of CPR, the man who was pulled out of Boise's New York Canal, Felix Martinez, died a few days later at St. Alphonsus Hospital.

And this is where the story takes a strange turn.

A man named Peter Heimlich saw that TV story and wrote to Boise Mayor Dave Bieter requesting that the local coroner conduct an inquest into Martinez’s death and to investigate why the firefighter performed the Heimlich maneuver.

Peter Heimlich is the son of Dr. Henry Heimlich, who's credited with inventing the Heimlich maneuver. Peter Heimlich runs a textile business in Georgia, but in his spare time he serves as sort of an anti-Heimlich-maneuver crusader.

Peter Heimlich believes his father used his celebrity status to do a lot of harm, including promoting the use of his eponymous maneuver in a variety of situations with no evidence that it actually worked. 

“Forty years ago my father started what I consider to be a poison idea which he promoted for the next decades and implanted in the public mind, so to speak,” he says.

Peter Heimlich even accuses his father of fabricating reports of people being revived from drowning with the Heimlich. (For more context on this part of the story, try this story from Radiolab on the life and career of Henry Heimlich.)

Peter Heimlich’s letter prompted the Boise Fire Department to look into the incident. Now, spokesperson Lynn Hightower says Matthews did not use the Heimlich on Felix Martinez, after all. But she refused to allow anyone from the city to be interviewed, including firefighter Brent Matthews and a police officer who assisted in the rescue. Here is Hightower’s official statement:

“Speaking with the firefighter involved in the rescue involving Mr. Martinez, reviewing his written report, and confirming with others, including supervisors who were on scene, it is confirmed the Heimlich maneuver was not performed on the drowning victim June 23. The firefighter’s quote reflected his thought process – not specifically in performing the Heimlich - but rather the importance of getting the water out of the victim, which was the topic of an article he had recently read. When the victim was pulled from the canal, he was picked up by the waist and rolled over to begin CPR. As that occurred, a large amount of water and sand out the victim’s mouth. CPR then began. Referencing the article admittedly did confuse the following media report which is unfortunate and something the department takes full responsibility for. The department’s subsequent review of actions in the field involved in this rescue found responders appropriately maintained the expected and established standard of care. The responders have been found to have followed training and procedure and did all they could to save the man’s life.” - Lynn Hightower

In the KTVB story, we don’t hear Matthews explicitly say he used the Heimlich. It’s reporter Scott Evans who says the Heimlich was effective.

Evans says his supervisors have told him not to talk about the incident. But in an email exchange with Peter Heimlich, Evans says he got the information about getting water and sand out of Martinez’s lungs from Matthews. Evans, though, doesn’t say definitively that Matthews used the Heimlich. 

When asked to release Evans' unedited interview with the firefighter, KTVB declined.  

Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg says the cause of Martinez’s death was drowning, which he explains means brain damage caused by lack of oxygen while Martinez was in the canal. But Sonnenberg says there’s no way for him to determine if the Heimlich maneuver was performed on Martinez, or if it was, to determine if it caused harm. Sonnenberg also says there won’t be a formal inquest in the case.

Peter Heimlich is not satisfied with the city’s explanation of what happened.

“What began as a concern regarding possible improper medical treatment given to Mr. Martinez seems to have turned into something bigger,” he says. “The mayor, the fire chief and others appear to be trying to change the story altogether.”

Peter Heimlich asked Boise’s city ethics commission to “investigate the investigation.” A city attorney confirms the commission will discuss it at its August 14 meeting. But that could just mean they’ll talk about whether they should, or could, look into it. The ethics commission is five volunteers who issue opinions on questions involving the city ethics code. 

Heimlich says he is trying to track down Martinez's relatives to make them aware of the situation.

Follow reporter Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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