It’s a regular old Tuesday in tropical Guam. Sunny, 88 degrees. Agency disposition personnel going about the normal business of property turn-in and reuse. Environmental Protection Specialist Richard Santos prints off some documents, heads to the copy machine to retrieve them. Then he hears something strange. A gasping, wheezing noise. A choking teammate.
“I ran toward him and performed the Heimlich maneuver for a good two to three minutes,” Santos said, noting that the victim first made the universal sign for choking. “I was using quite a bit of force, and with each second passing, I could tell he was getting barely any, if any, oxygen.”
Santos asked a coworker to call base emergency services while he continued to apply abdominal thrusts. He said he started thinking that he wasn’t tall enough to apply the proper amount of leverage, so he sprinted up the stairs to retrieve Eric Mills, the (taller) site chief.
“Sure enough, with one application, he was able to get it out,” Santos said.
The culprit: a tatiya, the thicker, more bread-like Marianas Islands staple made with coconut flour that’s a cousin to the thinner Mexican-style tortilla most Americans know. By all accounts, delicious.
They pulled up a chair for their colleague to sit and recover as they waited for emergency responders to arrive.
“It reiterates the importance of taking care of your coworkers and being aware of your environment,” said Santos, whose just-prior-to-the-incident conversation with the victim about their families served to fill him with a shot of adrenaline as he told himself there was no way he was going to let his teammate down. “It’s about knowing what to do. Sometimes these precious seconds or minutes might decide the outcome.”
Santos has served with the agency at Guam and in Barstow for a little under two years. Before that, he spent about a decade in uniform, including a tour in South Korea, where he and his wife both attended a safety course that taught CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, and the proper use of an automated external defibrillator, or AED.
“It was for my own kids,” Santos said. “My wife and I took the course, just for worst-case scenarios. We both said ‘hey, that information’s good to know.’”
The National Safety Council says that choking is the fourth most common cause of unintentional injury death, trailing only poisonings, motor vehicle crashes and falls. Many people have seen a child or adult begin choking at a restaurant or family occasion. The good thing is that Heimlich maneuver training is relatively easy to learn and perform, and works more than 70 percent of the time, according to the American Hospital Association.
“I believe it’s worthwhile to learn,” Santos said. “You never know when you might be the person who needs it. I was just in the right place this time.”
Mills praised Santos and the Guam site personnel for their quick reaction and protective actions.
“It’s refreshing to see the good in people come out in full force and that they truly mean it when they say they have your back,” Mills said. “When Richard saw the distress in a fellow teammate’s eyes and actions, instead of running from trouble he ran to provide aid. Years of battlefield and lifesaving instincts kicked in and the only thing on Richard’s mind was saving a teammate. Richard embodies service before self.”