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At 96, Dr. Henry Heimlich uses his own technique for first time to save someone

In this Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 photo, Dr. Henry Heimlich holds his memoirs prior to being interviewed at his home in Cincinnati. (Photo by Al Behrman/AP)
In this Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 photo, Dr. Henry Heimlich holds his memoirs prior to being interviewed at his home in Cincinnati.

He's demonstrated how to save lives countless times since inventing his technique four decades ago, but Dr. Henry Heimlich had never used his namesake maneuver on someone who was actually choking — until this week.

On Monday evening, when a woman who happened to be sitting next to him in their upscale Cincinnati retirement community choked on a piece of hamburger, 96-year-old Heimlich sprung into action.

"I immediately knew she was choking," Heimlich told NBC News. "I just realized, I've got to go over and save her."

So the doctor stood up, wrapped his hands around Patty Ris, 87, and began to squeeze her abdomen.

"It worked right away," the grateful Ris told NBC News.

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Heimlich, a former thoracic surgeon, introduced the maneuver in 1974. The simple but effective way of clearing airways is plastered on posters at eateries nationwide and has saved many choking victims, including Ronald Reagan, who choked on a peanut on a presidential campaign plane in 1976.

Dining hall staff at the Deupree House senior living community are trained on the Heimlich, and maitre d' Perry Gaines has had to use it twice before, said Bryan Reynolds, integrated marketing director for Episcopal Retirement Services, the non-profit that runs Deupree.

Gaines saw Ris choking and was prepared to save her — but then he saw who she was sitting next to.

"He saw Dr. Heimlich had it under control," Reynolds told NBC News. "He was ready to step in, but Dr. Heimlich had it taken care of."

Heimlich, who swims regularly and hasn't let old age stop him from doing things like going to the symphony, said he had no doubt he would be able to dislodge the food.

"I know I'm kind of... of age, but I'm pretty active," he said. "The Heimlich maneuver is a very gentle thing. It doesn't take a lot of effort at all."

Ris, a former third-grade teacher who just moved to Deupree in March, hadn't met Heimlich before that night. In a thank-you letter to him after he saved her, Ris wrote that "God must have put me next to him at that table."

"What a fine man, indeed. I appreciate him deeply," she said.

Despite his accomplished life, Heimlich isn't one to brag, Reynolds said.

"He's a great man, very humble," he said.

Ris called the Heimlich maneuver a "wondrous" invention and as for being the first-ever victim Heimlich has performed it on, she said, "I'm honored. I'm just glad to be alive, believe me."

Heimlich himself didn't think much of it.

"In that moment, of course, it was just a matter of knowing how to save someone's life and doing it," he said. "And after it was done and her faced changed and so forth, I just thought to myself, I have used my maneuver. It was just that. There was nothing else involved with it," he said.

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