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Off-duty deputy saves veteran’s life: ‘Let me get involved in this’

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MONTPELIER, Va. -- An off-duty Hanover County Sheriff's deputy saved an army veteran's life using the Heimlich maneuver.  Both the deputy and the man he saved are calling on more people to learn the proper techniques.

On April 3rd, veteran Hanover County Deputy Chris Kothe was enjoying a post-diner treat of gelato at his favorite Italian restaurant on Route 33 when he heard a commotion near the front of the restaurant.

Army veteran Phillip Wells and his wife Helen were eating their supper, when suddenly Mr. Wells was in need of help.

Army veteran Phillip Wells

Army veteran Phillip Wells

"I ordered pizza," Wells said. "Evidently I breathed in, and it took one of those real thin Italian sausages, you can read through them they're so thin.  It went into my throat and blocked my airway."

"He was turning blue, and he had mucus and stuff coming out of his nose and mouth," said Kothe.  "Passed off my cone and said, 'Let me get involved in this.'"

Helen and other patrons of the restaurant tried to help Wells but were unsuccessful.  That's when deputy Kothe stepped in to deploy a move he has been training on for years but had never used in his 23 years in law enforcement: the Heimlich maneuver.

"I knew either it was going to dislodge [the food] or his guts were going to come out of his mouth," said deputy Kothe with a smile.

"He's a strong man," Wells said with a chuckle.

Hanover County Deputy Chris Kothe

Hanover County Deputy Chris Kothe

After two thrusts, Kothe was able to dislodge the food.  Wells received medical treatment from responding emergency crews, but Kothe decided to pay his bill and walk out the door.

"I don't even know him. I've never seen him before in my life. I still don't know him. I wouldn't know him if he walked through that door," said Wells.  "[Kothe] knew what to do and he jumped right on in. I wouldn't be here talking today if it wasn't for him. I'd be dead."

"I was just grateful to be there at the time. It was awesome to know it does work," said Kothe about his response and training.

Both Kothe and Wells said the hope more people learn how to perform the Heimlich maneuver properly since every second counts in emergency choking situations.

Free one-hour training session

Free one-hour training session

The Chickahominy/Henrico Health District is one of the only health districts in Virginia that owns choke response training devices.  The neoprene vest with an air pouch on the front allows trainees to simulate the proper Heimlich technique on an real person.

"It could be your neighbor, it could be your brother, you mother that could be choking.  Wouldn't you want to know how to save their life?" said Jasmin Johnson with the Henrico/Chickhominy Medical Reserve Corp.

Johnson and other health officials offer free one-hour training sessions designed to teach food service workers, church groups, or anyone who wants to learn proper choke response techniques.

Anyone interested in participating should contact Jasmin Johnson, MRC Coordinator, at 804-501-4532 or jasmin.johnson@vdh.virginia.gov.