On March 13, a run-of-the-mill Air Division Safety Meeting quickly became a real-life lesson, when one TWU member began choking on his lunch and was saved by his union brothers.
After a long morning session, attendees were especially hungry when lunch arrived. Local 568 Safety Chair Joe Rodriguez took the first bite of his steak sandwich – but it “didn’t go down.”
He said he remained calm and tried to drink some water, but it came up through his nostrils. Rodriguez got up to go to the bathroom and gave a thumbs up that things were okay when someone asked.
“The worst thing I did was go to the restroom myself,” Rodriguez said, recalling how he was trying to bang his chest against objects to dislodge the food. He started to feel numbness in his jaw – one minute and eight seconds had already passed.
That’s when Rodriguez returned from the bathroom and made the international sign that someone is choking – holding his throat.
“These guys jumped up and did the Heimlich. The first attempt didn’t work,” Rodriguez said.
“The guys” he is referring to are heroes Mike Szwed, Vice President of Local 512 and Jay Sleeman of Local 513.
Still choking with his arms going numb, Sleeman threw Rodriguez “around like a wet rag,” performed the Heimlich maneuver and his throat finally cleared.
“When it came out, I couldn’t move. I was so exhausted from the lack of oxygen,” Rodriguez said. “I was embarrassed, but at least I was alive.”
‘Nothing Really to It’
Sleeman has a background in safety working with the fire department. He said performing the Heimlich on Rodriguez “all worked out great. There’s nothing really to it. You don’t think about it, especially if you’ve been trained. It’s a lot better feeling when it works out than when it doesn’t work out.”
The Heimlich maneuver works by putting your knuckles into the abdomen of the choking person, with a hard press in towards the backbone and up towards the throat. This swift motion pushes out air, which in turn knocks out whatever is lodged in the throat.
Sleeman said safety measures such as CPR and the Heimlich maneuver are something everyone should learn.
“It’s a rewarding thing to know,” Sleeman said, however adding, “I don’t feel like I should take a bunch of glory for it – I did it and I’m happy it worked out.”
TWU Family Strong
Rodriguez said he now looks at life with a different perspective. “You don’t realize how important life is,” he said, adding that when he got home, the first thing he did was hug his kids.
“I could not have been in better company when it happened because every guy there was a safety guy,” he said.
Rodriguez is a second generation TWU member – his father was a section chairman out of San Juan for Local 501. “All of my life I’ve been around the TWU. I was born into this family and they literally saved my life,” he said, adding that he is a former OSHA trainer and has been a TWU member for almost 30 years.
Rodriguez said he choked due to acid reflux, something he has had for many years. He ate something that didn’t sit well with him the previous day, which inflamed his esophagus, making it difficult to swallow.
“It’s something that happens once in a blue moon, but always review safety briefings, even with family members at home. If someone is choking, how do you communicate? What signal can I give?” Rodriguez explained. “Always prepare for the unexpected.”