Tuesday 22 August 2017

One minute I was eating, the next I couldn't breathe

Death came shockingly close to Antonia Leslie, who owes her life to a stranger at a music festival

I HAD a near-death experience recently, and it has really shaken me up. I choked on a piece of roast beef at a barbecue. I was at the Body and Soul festival. My soul was seconds away from leaving my own body, and it felt so stupid.

It was around 11pm and I was starving. I wandered off to find food with a friend, leaving my loved ones by a fire in the Bog Cottage. These little enclosures were all over a small wood, with fires, fairy lights and gypsy caravans dotted around and all sorts of ethnic music playing. The whole thing looked so magical; I was thrilled to be there. My friend Lulu steered me towards a huge fire and some tepees, where Lulu, a festival connoisseur, informed me we'd find the best food in the wood.

In this little culinary corner, an Argentinian man was grilling meats over a wood fire. I was ravenous. Lulu spoke to the Argentinian cook and he started carving up some roast beef and turning some pork belly to make a sort of pork belly hot dog. He handed me a hot dog and gave me some carved beef on a plate. I bit into the hot dog, it tasted gorgeous.

"It's Argentinian meat!" Lulu told me.

I told Lulu I was taking the food back to the other fire. She motioned that she was staying for a while and turned to talk to another friend. As I walked back towards where I had left my mini-family, I bit into a slice of roast beef. It was tough to chew but tasted just as good as the hot dog. I chewed and chewed as I walked. Still feeling that the meat was tough, I decided to swallow it anyway. I swallowed. It seemed to get stuck halfway down, so I swallowed some more. It wouldn't move.

'Oh shit,' I thought, 'this is going to be painful.' You know the kind of pain when you take in too big a gulp of water or swallow something too big and it really hurts after it goes down. I kept swallowing but it wouldn't move. 'Maybe if I drink some water,' I thought, 'or eat some bread it will dislodge it.' I stopped walking and tried to make some more saliva to do a really big swallow. The food wouldn't budge.

Up until then, it hadn't occurred to me that my windpipe would be blocked too. I mustn't have tried to breathe up until then, because when I did, I got the shock of my life. I breathed in and I couldn't. My throat made this big raspy noise and my lungs were gasping for air, but no air would go down. It felt horrible. I gasped in again and again, lungs actually beginning to hurt from the straining and this terrible suffocating feeling spreading through my body.

I was choking. I tried to shout or scream but I couldn't work my vocal cords. They were blocked. In fact, all my throat muscles were paralysed.

'Quick . . . think . . . How long before I'm unconscious? If I fall down unconscious at a music festival, everyone will think I'm drunk or on drugs. No-one will know to clear my throat!'

Panic set in and I looked at all the people around, so close, yet so far. The nearest person was maybe seven yards away. How can I tell them what's wrong? What can they do?

'I'm going to die,' I thought. These were my last few seconds on Earth, alive, in this body. I was choking to death and no life was flashing before my eyes. No

angels appeared. No dead parent in a bright light was coming to get me. Just a feeling of how stupid this was. After all the wild and dangerous things I had done in my life, after all the excitement, pain, glamour and horror, this was how I went? Choking to death on a piece of meat!

The next thing I knew I was running back towards the barbecue and pushing people out of the way. It took a while to get there. The Argentinian cook was putting the hot dogs together. People seemed surreal and irrelevant. I reached for a big bottle of water before I could even think of the commands to do so. I gulped down the water, but it wouldn't go past the meat and just ran down my face from each side of my mouth.I was making really desperate rasping noises as my lungs started going into overdrive, desperately trying to open up and suck in air. The pain was awful but the actual sensation of empty lungs gasping for air was even more horrible, indescribable.

Next thing Lulu was beside me. I pointed furiously at my throat. The choking sounds were very loud to me, but could she hear them over the music? She stared at me for a second. Then her face registered the situation. "She's choking," I heard her shout out. I was starting to fade. This was it -- the end! How banal. How stupid. Everything was in slow motion. Then suddenly the Argentinian guy was at my side. He pushed me in front of him and wrapped his arms around my waist. He squeezed and jolted me up into the air. Nothing happened. He did it a second time, so hard my feet lifted off the ground, but it worked. The meat and a lot of water shot out of my mouth about three feet in front of me and my lungs filled with air. I was alive and breathing and I had never been so grateful for a single moment or a single breath.

I won't bore you with the shaky recovery or the thoughts of how precious life is. I will just say that I owe my life to that Argentinian man and I will be eternally grateful to him. But here's the point. Most of us know what the Heimlich manoeuvre is, but how many of us could do it if we needed to?

Approximately 300 people die from choking each year in the UK alone. It's called a Café Coronary and it is an unnecessary death. People should learn to do the Heimlich manoeuvre properly through first aid classes.

This is how I have seen it demonstrated: get behind the choking person. Wrap your arms around their waist, making a fist with one hand and positioning the fist just above the belly button. With the other hand, you take hold of the forearm of your first arm. You pull in and up very quickly and with force. This pushes the air into the inflated lung, creating a cough (one lung is always inflated while the other deflates as you breathe). The air rushing up the windpipe dislodges the obstruction and it flies out of the mouth. You usually have between three and four minutes before the person choking falls unconscious. After this, you try the Heimlich manoeuvre by pushing down and up in the same region, above the belly button, as with CPR, with the person lying on the ground.

Check it out and get proper instruction. It is so simple and might just save someone's life some day.

Sunday Independent

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