A cafeteria near-catastrophe: How one employee likely saved a co-worker’s life

It was an ordinary day in the hospital cafeteria. Co-workers eating lunch, laughing, and talking—when suddenly, everything changed.

“We were just sitting there,” says Neil Lefebure, RN, BSN. “I was eating the General Tso chicken sandwich when one of my co-workers inhaled a piece of food the wrong way and started choking. She coughed and started rubbing the area around her neck.”

Neil Lefebure, RN, BSN

Another co-worker quickly asked if she was okay, but as the woman took another breath, Lefebure noticed her eyes suddenly grew wide and her face took on a red complexion.

Recognizing the need for action, Lefebure quickly stood up, moved behind the woman, and performed the Heimlich maneuver until she was able to cough up the piece of food and clear her airway.

“I think I was just on auto-pilot and jumped into action,” he says. “It was over as fast as it started, and then we all sat back down and started eating and talking again.”

Lefebure, just six months into his job as a staff nurse with the DeGowin Blood Center, previously worked in a hospital emergency department. He says he learned the Heimlich maneuver back in high school as part of a first-aid class but had never used the technique until that day in the cafeteria.

Know the signs

The Heimlich maneuver is a first-aid technique that uses abdominal thrusts to clear a person’s airway.

Would you know what to do if someone started choking? Choking is often caused by eating or drinking too quickly or swallowing food before it has been chewed sufficiently. It also can occur if small bones or objects are swallowed or inhaled. Warning signs include:

  • Clutching or grasping at the throat
  • Shallow coughs or wheezing
  • Gagging
  • Inability to speak, breathe or swallow
  • A noticeable, rapid change in skin color (red, ruddy face or blue lips)
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of consciousness

Lefebure also points out another universal sign.

“If someone gets up and leaves suddenly, go check on them,” he says. “It may be that they are trying to gag or spit up food, and they are embarrassed. It’s best to check to be sure nothing’s wrong.”