Monday, June 13, 2011

Zeroes among us: American Red Cross & Bay City, Michigan newspaper circulate dangerous medical misinformation, then refuse to clean up their mess

Rotary International, Bay City, MI, 2006: incoming president Gena Gates (left), source

Per the June 3, 2011 Washington Post, the American Red Cross warns that performing the Heimlich maneuver on someone who's drowning is "unnecessary and potentially dangerous."

How dangerous? From the same article, this body count:
In Tampa, which has one of the highest drowning rates in the country, Dr. James Orlowski said he has documented nearly 40 cases where rescuers performing the Heimlich maneuver have caused complications for the victim. Orlowski is chief of pediatrics and pediatric intensive care at University Community Hospital in Tampa.
Complications = brain damage or death.

Meanwhile in Bay City, Michigan, as reported by Holly Setter in the Bay City Times:
This year’s recipient of the Teamwork Hero award from the Red Cross “Heroes Among Us” recognition program, (Heather) Irish put her medical training to good use and saved a man who would have drowned without aid...Irish pulled him above water and began administering the Heimlich maneuver to clear his airway. Just as he finished vomiting water, Irish said he went into a grand mal seizure.
 ...While she said she is thankful that she was able to step in and save a life, Irish said she’s a bit befuddled by the Red Cross hero designation.
“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” she said.
Absolutely ridiculous indeed. Please read on.

After seeing Ms. Setter's article, I wanted to learn why the American Red Cross (ARC) would present an award to someone who misguidedly performed a discredited medical treatment that their organization warned against.

So I e-mailed these questions to Gena Gates, Executive Director of Michigan's East Shoreline ARC chapter, which presented the award:
1) Based on this description (in the Bay City Times article), it's unclear whether or not Ms. Irish was taught to apply the Heimlich maneuver (a/k/a abdominal thrusts) to clear water from the airway of a near-drowning victim in a Red Cross training class, perhaps via your chapter. Can you clarify?

2) Based on the presentation of the award, my understanding is that your chapter endorses the use of the Heimlich maneuver for near-drowning rescue. Is that accurate?

3) When Ms. Setter was reporting her article, did any representatives of your organization make her aware of the American Red Cross's position on the use of the Heimlich maneuver for near-drowning per the attached August 2005 ARC "hot topics" memo and per this 2006 policy statement
 Her answers:
1. I don’t know whether Ms. Irish was taught to use abdominal thrusts to clear water from the airway of a near-drowning victim. As she is quoted, if she had simply followed her training, she would not have thought to use this method. I do not know what training Ms. Irish has had.

2. Our chapter follows the guidelines established by the American National Red Cross for lifesaving skills training, as we are required to do.

3. There was no discussion with Ms. Setter or with any of our heroes about the Red Cross position on any lifesaving techniques.
...Ms. Irish did not actually receive an award at our event yesterday. After her initial interview with our staff, she did not respond to phone calls....
In other words, Ms. Gates didn't do her homework and the recipient didn't even want the award.

Assuming she'd want to fix her goof so that Bay City Times readers didn't get the idea that they should perform the Heimlich on a drowning victim and perhaps add more names to Dr. Orlowski's casualty list, I then sent Ms. Gates this modest request:
Under the circumstances, do you or any other Red Cross representatives intend to write a clarification letter to the editor of the Bay City Times or to request a published clarification?
I didn't receive a reply. So I sent her a follow-up.

I didn't receive a reply to that either, so I sent her another follow-up. I didn't receive a reply to that either.

Okay, I thought. Since Ms. Gates is playing ostrich, I'll bring this to Red Cross national in Washington.

Remember their slogan? "Together, We Can Save a Life." Surely they'd encourage her to put pen to paper to correct the record or maybe they'd write to the paper themselves?

Here's what came back: 
Subject: RE: media inquiry
Date: Fri, 3 Jun 2011 17:00:54 -0400
Mr. Peter Heimlich:
After reading your email and reviewing the correspondence you submitted, I spoke with Ms. Gena Gates on the phone. Ms. Gates confirmed that the East Shoreline Chapter will not be submitting a letter to the editor of the Bay City Times regarding this matter.

The intent of the chapter was to recognize Ms. Irish for her selfless, heroic actions of helping someone in need and for saving the gentleman’s life. We do not intend to diminish the efforts of Ms. Irish by asking clarification of exactly what skills she performed that day.


Don Lauritzen
Officer, Preparedness and Health and Safety Services Communications
American Red Cross National Headquarters
Address: 431 18th Street NW, Washington DC 20006
Phone: 202.303.4775 Fax: 202.303.6604
Unless I'm missing something, the American Red Cross is now on the record supporting the application of dangerous and improper medical treatments if the victim survives.

As for these awards, which the Red Cross hands out endlessly, situations like make it seem like they're less for the benefit of the recipients - remember that Ms. Irish didn't even want hers? - and more of an opportunity to generate positive media coverage and attract donations.

Fine, business is business. But in this case, by failing to clean up their mess, the Red Cross is putting lives at risk. Also, is writing a quick letter to the editor such a challenge, Ms. Gates? Mr. Lauritzen?      

How about the Bay City Times? Surely they'd would want to correct the record with a quick clarification in order to protect the health and welfare of their readers.

How about this? "To our readers: Holly Setter's report about the East Shoreline Red Cross's 'Heroes Among Us' award may have created the impression that the Heimlich maneuver was an acceptable treatment for drowning rescue. In fact, performing the treatment might kill someone. Don't do it, folks."

Or words to that effect.

After all, the Bay City Times claims to be all about helping their community. Says so here on their website:

Holly Setter, Bay City Times
After being fully informed about the issues, including that the ARC warns against the use of the Heimlich maneuver for drowning rescue, how did they repond?
Subject: Re: author inquiry
From: Holly Setter <>
Date: Tue, 31 May 2011 08:36:59 -0400
To: Peter M. Heimlich <>

Mr. Heimlich,

I appreciate your follow through on this particular issue. In my article, I did not imply that the Red Cross advocates using the Heimlich maneuver as an effect means of saving someone who has nearly drowned nor did I dispute that. The woman featured in the article described her actions as similar to the Heimlich and that was how it was presented to me by staff at the Red Cross prior to their decision to not give her the award.

My editor and I do not feel there is any need for a correction or clarification as the information in the article was accurate to what both the Red Cross and Ms. Irish know to have happened and there is no assertion that it is the proper method for responding to a drowning situation.

If you have any further questions, feel free to contact me.

Holly Setter
Booth Mid-Michigan

(989) 513-6907
So much for the community.

I then asked Ms. Setter for her editor's name so I could include it in the item you're now reading. She told me his name is Rob Clark. I wanted to include a photo, so I Googled his name.

This information that turned up prompts me to take a brief detour into media criticism:

Did the fact that Mr. Clark succeeded Ms. Gates as president of the local Rotary affiliate have any bearing on his decision not to publish a clarification regarding his paper's Heimlich for drowning snafu?

I have no idea. And that's the problem.

Simply by being a Rotary member, Mr. Clark opens the door for readers to accuse him of bias. Does he deep-six critical reporting about other Rotarian's businesses? Is he hustling for ads at Rotary lunches?, etc.

Obviously the smart move for journalists is to circumvent the problem by not joining, let alone heading, such an organization.

By the way, for a possible future item, if you know any other mainstream media journalists who are Rotarians, please e-mail me the details.

End of detour. Back on the main road.

After I publish this item, I'm sending a link to officials at Red Cross national with the following request: 
Would you please send a memo to your chapters asking them to stop honoring people who perform the Heimlich maneuver on near-drowning victims?
Because as much as I thrive on newsworthy stories to blog about, I'd prefer not writing any more about young people who died in drownings after they received the Heimlich maneuver, like the ones posted on my website.

Here's one from Ms. Gates's home state:
Derrick Kelly lay unconscious on the deck of Eastern Michigan University’s Jones Pool, bloody foam oozing from his mouth and nose.

At that moment on the night of Jan. 31, 2003, decades’ worth of effort on the part of Dr. Henry J. Heimlich came into play when the maneuver bearing his name was performed in a desperate attempt to get the 17-year-old Detroit high school student breathing.

As part of an investigation into the incident, one of the lifeguards who tried to revive Kelly provided this written account of her efforts:

“I proceeded to give the victim rescue breaths, the breaths did not go in. The reason being was because the male’s jaw was locked shut and his tongue was swollen and stuck to the roof of his mouth. When I unlocked his jaw and moved his tongue I gave another rescue breath. As soon as I backed away to check his pulse, bloody foam came pouring from his nose and mouth. I then proceeded to do abdominal thrusts to remove the bloody foam, and then rescue breathing after the thrusts.”

She continued the routine for about three minutes. The effort failed. Kelly never drew another breath.