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Hospital’s Choking First Aid Campaign Saves Lives

Hospital’s Choking First Aid Campaign Saves Lives

Fara Fernow, manager of the popular Massimo’s Restaurant in Fremont, tears up with emotion when she recalls saving a patron’s life who was choking on food this past April.

While she doesn’t see herself as a hero, saving someone who could’ve choked to death was a profound experience. “Things are different when you save a life,” says the 42-year-old mother of three.

After the rescue, Fernow quickly returned to managing the busy dining room. Later that evening, when the restaurant was quiet and she was locking up, she said to herself, “Yeah, I did that.”

Fernow, who has worked at Massimo’s on and off since 2017, attributes her confidence, skill and courage to Washington Hospital Healthcare System (WHHS), which provided her with the skills to do the abdominal thrust maneuver, also known as the Heimlich maneuver. The simple maneuver helps dislodge food or items that may be stuck in someone’s throat, preventing them from breathing. “I owe it all to Washington Hospital for giving me the tools to save a life,” shares Fernow.

In March, her boss asked her to attend the Hospital’s Choking First Aid presentation. The presentation was part of a Hospital campaign to raise awareness of the signs of choking, and to educate and train local restaurant staff in choking first aid.

“Anything I can do to help the community is something I want to be a part of,” says Fernow, who enthusiastically attended the 30-minute presentation. She recorded the Heimlich maneuver demonstration on her phone, and shared it with Massimo’s servers and bartenders so others could learn it, too.

Restaurant manager puts skill into practice

Ironically, less than a week later, she was called to rely on her newfound skills to save a senior citizen who was choking on food at Massimo’s.

Fernow recollects that a woman had gotten up from the table where she was having dinner with friends, and walked into a hallway to avoid making a disturbance because she was in distress. A server noticed that the woman was choking and called to Fernow. “The woman had all the obvious signs: looking like a deer in the headlights, holding her hands to her throat, and not responding,” says Fernow.

“I asked if I could touch her and she nodded yes. I told her what I was going to do, performed the Heimlich several times, and it worked. The woman began talking to me and said she was fine and didn’t want an ambulance called.”

“The woman then told me that her husband had just died, and we both started crying,” Fernow adds. “God led me to do what I needed to do and gave me the courage to do it.”

Choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional injuries in the United States, according to Emergency Department nurse Betty Goodwin, who holds a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and teaches choking first aid. The clinical nurse specialist explains that the death rate from choking is 1.6 per 100,000 people. “That seems like a lot,” she says, “especially if you consider that it means almost three to four people in Fremont alone will die of choking each year.”

Federicos the force behind the campaign

A driving force for the Hospital campaign was Fremont entrepreneur Rico Rodriguez, owner of Federicos Grill, who lost his brother and business partner, Kiko, to a December 2022 choking accident at the restaurant. Rico, who feels his brother wasn’t saved because no one around him knew what to do, wants to raise awareness for choking and help train all local restaurant employees in the lifesaving technique.

The Hospital’s next community presentation is June 18, noon to 1 p.m., at the Birdhouse Beer Garden, Union City, and is open to the public. Participants will learn:

  • How to recognize choking: Quick tips to identify when someone is choking.
  • Abdominal thrust: Step-by-step instructions for adults, children and infants.
  • Self-help techniques: What to do if you're alone and choking.
  • Prevention tips: Easy ways to minimize choking risks at home and in public spaces.

Children and the elderly are especially at risk for choking, according to Goodwin. With aging, neck muscles weaken and airways narrow, making chewing and swallowing harder.

Choking prevention tips

Goodwin suggests preventing choking by cutting food into smaller pieces, chewing thoroughly, and avoiding talking or laughing while chewing. Medications also present a choking hazard for some, she adds.

For babies, Goodwin suggests making sure food is small enough, and watching kids while they’re eating. Avoid high-risk choking foods like grapes, nuts or hard candy.

Learning the abdominal thrust maneuver was somewhat easier for Fernow to learn because she was trained as a medical assistant earlier in her career. “I had learned CPR and choking first aid, but I was rusty and dusty,” she explains. “WHHS polished my knowledge and increased my confidence.”

Because of this incident, Fernow feels a deeper connection to WHHS. “I’m very close to Washington Hospital. I was born there, and have a lot of memories over the years. All my siblings were born there, too. This has made the connection even stronger.”

Injury prevention is an important part of the Healthcare System’s journey to become a level II trauma center. The Hospital plans to receive trauma patients beginning this July.

For more information on choking first aid and other WHHS events, visit

To view the choking first aid presentation on YouTube, visit­Eansg8