The sun was shining, the poolside music playing and Rachel Humphrey, her husband Chris and their three children were enjoying a longed-for holiday in Tenerife.
‘We’d waited ages for a holiday after Covid and it was just perfect,’ recalls Rachel.
The family had opted for an all-inclusive stay in October and were just sitting down with their lunch from the hotel buffet.
Chris, 47, was tucking into a plate of barbecue ribs. ‘He had a habit of often clearing his throat while eating,’ says Rachel.
‘So when he started clearing his throat I thought it was normal. But then he cleared it again — and again.’
When he pushed himself away from the table, Rachel realised that her husband was choking.
As a nurse, she immediately tried the back-slap technique she’d been trained in — slapping Chris hard in the middle of his back to dislodge the food.
The family had opted for an all-inclusive stay in October and were just sitting down with their lunch from the hotel buffet. Chris, 47, was tucking into a plate of barbecue ribs
But it did no good. ‘By now Chris was heaving, his eyes were bulging and his face was red, while his breathing changed to more of a squeak,’ says Rachel, 42.
She readily admits that, while she can keep a calm head in a crisis with patients, it was another matter when it was her own husband, looking at her terrified.
The couple’s teenage sons, Dean and Ben, ‘were sitting there stunned, too — they were witnessing their father fighting for his life’.
Suddenly, from nowhere, Rachel felt a hand on her shoulder.
‘Someone moved me out of the way and stepped in,’ she says. ‘It was a young waiter we recognised. He grabbed Chris, lifted him off the floor — despite Chris being twice his size — and started the Heimlich manoeuvre, giving three large shoves under his breastbone,’ says Rachel.
Something immediately flew from Chris’s mouth across the table. ‘He suddenly let out a huge gasp and breathed,’ she recalls. ‘Everyone around us gasped in relief.’
The waiter — who they later learned was called Jorge Perez Maestre — then simply patted agricultural engineer Chris on the back, asked if he was OK, and resumed his duties.
‘I sat there stunned, unable to eat, tears down my face,’ says Rachel. ‘Jorge had saved Chris’s life.’
‘Someone moved me out of the way and stepped in,’ she says. ‘It was a young waiter we recognised. He grabbed Chris, lifted him off the floor — despite Chris being twice his size — and started the Heimlich manoeuvre, giving three large shoves under his breastbone,’ says Rachel'
At least one child a month dies from choking in the UK, according to Dr Lynn Thomas, medical director at first aiders St John Ambulance — in 2019, there were 351 fatalities, among both children and adults, caused by choking.
‘But we don’t know fully how many people have choking episodes and don’t die,’ she adds.
The London Ambulance Service alone receives an average of five calls a day related to choking — with nearly 2,000 people a year in London calling an ambulance because of a choking incident.
‘A lot of this is preventable — if you know what to do you might not need to call an ambulance,’ says Dr Thomas.
When we swallow, the muscles in the lower throat contract, pushing food into the food pipe, and away from the airway.
The vocal cords and a protective flap of tissue called the epiglottis also help keep the airway closed off from food, drink or saliva. Dr Jonathan Hoare, a consultant gastroenterologist at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London, explains that as you start to swallow, ‘the epiglottis automatically closes off your airway and the food will go down the right way’.
But swallowing is a complex process involving co-ordinating actions between 20 muscles and millions of nerves, he adds.
And this process can go awry for a number of reasons, with the food ending up in the airway instead.
‘People might be eating fast, taking too big a mouthful, talking at the same time, being distracted, or they’re drunk,’ says Dr Hoare.
In some cases, choking is related to a health