Boise homeless man's death sparks Heimlich questions

A firefighter said he used the maneuver to revive a man who later died of the effects of drowning.

sberg@idahostatesman.comJuly 18, 2014 

Felix Martinez, a 56-year-old homeless man, was rescued from a canal by Boise Senior Firefighter Brent Matthews on June 23. Martinez was taken to St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, where he died June 28.

How did he die? Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg ruled Martinez's death an accidental drowning. Sonnenberg said brain damage from a lack of oxygen could have caused the delayed death.

What about the rescue? When Matthews pulled Martinez out of the canal, he wasn't breathing and had no pulse. Matthews told a KTVB reporter that day that he had read articles about "performing the Heimlich maneuver" on drowning victims.

That sparked a mini-controversy.

Peter Heimlich, of Atlanta, the son of Heimlich maneuver inventor Henry Heimlich, used Martinez's death to promote his contention that using the technique can be dangerous.

Did Matthews actually use the Heimlich? The Boise Fire Department says no. Spokeswoman Lynn Hightower said other emergency response officials at the scene corroborated Matthews' report, which said he used CPR to bring Martinez back.

"(Matthews') quote reflected his thought process - not specifically in performing the Heimlich - but rather the importance of getting the water out of the victim," Hightower said in an email. "When the victim was pulled from the canal, he was picked up by the waist and rolled over to begin CPR. As that occurred, a large amount of water and sand (came) out the victim's mouth. CPR then began."

Does it really matter? Even if Matthews had used the Heimlich, that doesn't mean it had anything to do with Martinez's death. The bottom line, Sonnenberg said, is that whatever technique Matthews used, it was effective because he brought Martinez back from being essentially dead. Used wrong, CPR also can cause as much damage as the Heimlich, Sonnenberg said.

Will he call an inquest? The coroner has the power to call for an inquest to investigate a death, which would involve an attorney presenting all the facts to a jury. But Sonnenberg said he has no intention of doing that.

Sven Berg: 377-6275

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service