I Could Have Died

by Kelly Bruton
Charlottesville, VA

I Could Have Died

My day started out just like any other day: get everyone out the door, walk the dog, and head off to the day’s scheduled events. I had volunteered to work at Martha’s Market, a local non-profit event to raise money for women’s health in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was on the loading dock, helping the market vendors move into their booths.  I stopped briefly to grab a sandwich and have a drink of water.

As I went to take a bite of the sandwich, somehow a piece of bread broke off, and I inhaled it. Fresh, sticky, whole wheat bread. I started to cough, and it wouldn’t budge. In fact, when I tried to inhale, I sucked the bread in more firmly. And coughed more.

Soon, I was standing on the loading dock surrounded by a group of women. My face was red, and my eyes were watering. I was embarrassed, thinking, “Oh my heavens! This can’t be happening to me. Everyone is staring at me!” I was wheezing, barely able to suck in any air. The noises I was making were scary ones, ones you don’t normally hear people make. I could hear the conversations around me: “Is she ok?” “Is she just coughing or is she choking?” “If she’s coughing it means she’s getting air, just let her cough!”

I was getting in tiny sips of air… but then, I wasn’t. I was completely blocked. I signaled, to the best of my ability, that there was no air. I sliced my hands in a hatchet motion across my throat. The air had stopped.

Christy W. shouted, “That’s it! She’s not breathing!” She swooped in, pushed everyone away, and grabbed me from behind. She performed the Heimlich maneuver, more than once, and she kept asking, “Can you breathe?” Finally, her efforts dislodged the bread. I sucked in a huge gasp of air, followed by explosive coughing… but I could breathe.

Christy stood there, shaking with adrenaline, and said, “I just completed my recertification two weeks ago. My company makes us do that every year. Are you OK? Do you need to sit down?” And I was OK. I was better than OK: I’d been rescued.

I was rescued by a woman who took her company’s training seriously. She was terrified, but she didn’t let that stop her from doing what she had learned to do. She watched me for clues to my condition. She didn’t stand back; she jumped in and did what was needed.

How many of us think every day, at least once, that this could be our last day on this earth? I never did; I was busy living through each day.  But now, every night, I think to myself, “I could have died today,” and I smile in gratitude. And you can bet that I’m taking that training to pay it forward!

Originally published as HeroicStories #851 on Dec 26, 2014

8 thoughts on “I Could Have Died”

  1. 20 years ago, when I was an editor in a publishing firm in Manhattan, I was walking down the office aisle at lunchtime, and was approached by a co-worker who was red-faced and pointing to his throat. I knew immediately what his problem was, and having been trained in the Heimlich maneuver, I performed it on him, to his (and my!) great relief. If worked instantly.

    I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but some time later, I was having lunch with one of this man’s colleagues in a restaurant when she gasped and pointed to her throat. I performed the maneuver on her while she was still seated from the back her chair. It happened so quickly that she and I were the only ones who knew what had happened, and we just continued with our lunch.

    Everyone should learn how to do the Heimlich maneuver. You never know when you will need to use it!

  2. For 30 years I worked for a company that took safety training seriously. Never once did I “skate” through the training. I knew its value.
    When our son was young and would often cough and choke while eating, we established that he would say his favourite word (the longest word he could say at the time) to let us know he was still breathing (like the person in the story said, if they can inhale, leave them alone). He’s a grown man now, but still when someone at our table chokes/coughs, we all call out “watermelon?”. If we don’t get a responding “watermelon” back, we know its time to intervene. Thank Heavens, we’ve never had to so far, but we are all trained.

  3. This is why I think EVERYONE should take a basic CPR and first aid class every so often. It really really can mean the difference between life and death for someone!

  4. In May of this year I had a heart failure incident. I sat in my car waiting for help and absolutely no one asked if I was ok. I will never, ever pass by anyone who might need help even though I may have in the past. Thank you for cementing my resolve to offer help!

  5. At dinner one evening, several years ago, my husband managed to choke on a big chunk of steak and baked potato. He was opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water. I asked him if he wanted me to do the Heimlich maneuver on him and he nodded emphatically, yes. We were sitting on the floor to eat dinner and he’s a big guy but I managed to get him into position and performed it once. Out popped an enormous bite of food and he was able to breathe. I called the emergency room and asked the doc on duty if he should be seen (he was feeling shaky after that) but the doc just said to watch him. Hubby was pretty careful about eating smaller bites and remembering to chew before trying to swallow. Thank goodness for CPR training at work.

  6. The reason I keep coming back is to be reminded just how many heroes I’m surrounded by every day and the number who would never think of themselves that way. There’s a job in front of them and they just do it.

  7. I inhaled a very small pill early (6 am) one morning at work. At that hour, I was the only one on my side of the floor of the building, or so I thought. Thankfully, another woman had come in early (which I didn’t know until she was at my cubicle.) I think she had emergency training, but if not, she had the sense to leave me alone as I was still managing to suck in air. Even if she didn’t have training, at least there was someone there to call for help! It took probably an hour for me coughing and spluttering to finally dislodge the pill from my windpipe, and for a very long time after that I had trouble taking pills!

  8. About 20 years ago I was walking through a shopping mall with my young son when we passed a Mom with 3 children and the youngest suddenly projectile vomited. I noticed a bag of popcorn on the bench between the group. I asked the Mom – did you give popcorn to your baby? She said yes. I told her that he probably was choking on a piece of popcorn and that babies have projectile vomiting in response instead of coughing. I told her get him checked out and stop feeding him popcorn. She seems to take my advice but I walked away as she was the adult who had to make the choice.


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