On Nov. 19, the University of Cincinnati received one of five inquiry letters sent to organizations that could be linked to an offshore, potentially controversial experiment.
Peter Heimlich, son of Henry Heimlich — famous for the Heimlich Maneuver choking rescue treatment — sent the inquiry letters in hopes of obtaining more information on the experiment, which was performed on children in Barbados, according to a study published in the West Indian Medical Journal in 2005. Peter Heimlich reported the information on his blog, The Sidebar, and his work has been featured in various news outlets. He began his research in 2002.
The study tested whether or not a modified version of the Heimlich Maneuver could stop an acute asthma attack or treat asthma symptoms without contemporary treatment. The subjects’ parents gave consent and the results reported no adverse effects, according to the study. The 67 children who participated were between the ages of six and 16.
“Since at least 1996, based on dubious evidence, my father has claimed that the Heimlich Maneuver can stop asthma attacks, but asthma experts have expressed strong doubts,” Peter Heimlich said. “For example, in 2005, Loren Greenway, administrative director of respiratory and pulmonary medicine for Intermountain Health Care in Salt Lake City, told a reporter that using the Heimlich maneuver in an acute asthmatic condition … could actually kill somebody.”
UC received one of the inquiry letters because Charles Pierce, adjunct professor of psychiatry at UC, was involved with applying for loans for the study, according to email correspondence gathered from the Winkler Center’s Heimlich Archives at UC. Pierce said he helped write a draft for the experiment protocol, but does not know if it was changed since he passed it onto Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Barbados.
Pierce also said the modified version of the Heimlich Maneuver is harmless, and is meant to empty the lungs and give relief to an asthma patient and could prevent further asthma attacks.
In his letter to UC, Peter Heimlich requested information on whether or not the university was involved, and if not he asked if it should have been. He told The News Record he hasn’t received a reply thus far, but UC Spokesperson Greg Hand said federal regulations only mandate UC to keep documentation specific to this experiment for three years.
Accordingly, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at UC has no record of ever working with Pierce. Hand said Pierce is an adjunct professor and the majority of his work is done at Children’s Hospital, not with the university.
Other organizations and individuals also received the letters, including Rotary International, Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Barbados, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Donville Inniss, the minister of health in Barbados.
Kimberly Dunbar, media relations specialist at Rotary International, confirmed Rotary Foundation did not fund any part of the project, “which means the project was done at the club level.” Rotary International has many satellite clubs, including one in Barbados.
The other organizations have not responded as of press time.
One of Peter Heimlich’s main concerns with the study is the lack of evidence of IRB approval. When asked about IRB approval, Pierce and Anne St. John, a doctor in Barbados who was involved in the study, claim IRB approved the project. Pierce said he could not recall the name of the specific IRB that approved the study.
“A couple weeks ago, I sent inquiries to Queen Elizabeth Hospital and to Donville Inniss, the Barbados Minister of Health, asking for the name of the IRB and when the Ethics Committee approved the study,” Peter Heimlich said. “I haven't received any answers.”
In a proposal for the experiment found in the Winkler Center’s Heimlich Archives at UC, Henry Heimlich included anecdotes from unnamed sources stating the use of the Heimlich Maneuver stopped their child’s asthma attack.
Peter Heimlich questions those anecdotal reports because of what he calls his “father’s history of making grandiose medical claims based on dubious or fabricated evidence.”
While at this point there is little evidence of medical fraud, Peter Heimlich previously looked into allegations of his father’s involvement in “malariotherapy,” a study done in China where allegedly unwilling patients with various, incurable diseases were given malaria as a treatment. The story was covered by news organizations such as The Cincinnati Enquirer and The New York Times.
“Regarding the Barbados asthma study, I haven’t seen evidence of any wrongdoing,” Peter Heimlich said. “I simply want to find out if the researchers and funders followed legal and ethical guidelines.”
The News Record will update this story and release more details as they become available.