Nurse Mercy Aguilar taught the Heimlich maneuver to her 11-year-old nephew, never imagining he would have to spring into action when he witnessed a classmate choking inside the Liberty Middle School cafeteria.
It was by all indications an ordinary day in May inside the cafeteria at Liberty Middle School. Sixth-grader Christian Swope was eating lunch with friends, just as he had done every other day during the 2020–21 school year. The usual chatter filled the lunchroom when Swope, 11, noticed a fellow student choking nearby. He immediately recognized the seriousness of the situation and sprang into action with an unbridled bravery that belied his young age. Swope recalled what his aunt, Mercy Aguilar, had taught him about using certain skills to save someone else’s life in an emergency. He moved behind the student, wrapped his arms around his waist and did as he had been instructed.
The Heimlich maneuver—invented in 1974 by Dr. Henry Heimlich, a thoracic surgeon and medical researcher who graduated from Cornell University—dislodged the food and prevented the scene from becoming far more dire. The school phoned Aguilar soon after and informed her of her nephew’s heroic deed.
“I was flabbergasted,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘You mean he was paying attention to what I taught him?’ When he came home from school that day, I said to him, ‘You actually used it?’” Christian was nonchalant about the incident and his quick reactions. “He was choking,” he told his aunt, “and I just jumped in.” Aguilar beamed with pride. “I think he really surprised himself,” she said. “After the fact, I think it was surreal for him, and he couldn’t believe he actually did it.”
Swope came to live with his aunt and uncle at the age of 4. The couple took him in once his prospects for a good life turned bleak, so he has become more like a son than a nephew. Aguilar describes him as outgoing and generous. “Christian loves to play and is really an extrovert,” she said. “He has a little bit of ADHD, so we have to set guidelines for him to stay focused.” Aguilar recalls a time when Swope bought her a birthday present. Upon thoughtful reflection, she realized he had spent the last $5 he had in his possession on her. “Christian loves people,” Aguilar said. “He loves to play and be the center of attention, but he will also put himself out for other people.”
“Christian loves people. He loves to play and be the center of attention, but he will also put himself out for other people.”Mercy Aguilar
Aguilar pointed to personal experience for why she decided to teach the Heimlich maneuver to Swope and her two biological sons. She wanted to give them the tools necessary to save another person’s life if they ever found themselves in a situation where someone was choking or could not breathe. Aguilar remembers an incident that happened when she was a teenager. It sticks with her to this day. She lived in West Africa at the time and happened to be at the beach.
“I witnessed a man drowning,” she said. “It was very traumatic, and I’ll never forget it.”
Upon moving to the United States, Aguilar made the decision to study to become a nurse. That, of course, led to her obtaining the skills needed to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Because of what she had witnessed on the beach in West Africa many years ago, the need to pass on those skills to her nephew and two sons weighed heavily on her heart. “If I’d had this skill,” she said, “I might could have helped save the drowning victim that day.” Aguilar picked a day and brought all three boys together in the same room. She used a skeleton model and began educating them on how to perform the Heimlich properly to save a choking victim.
“I tried to be very descriptive and make it interesting for them,” Aguilar said. “I also made it child-friendly and tried to keep it on their level. They were very engaged. I made them practice on each other to make sure they did it correctly.”
Aguilar shared the story about the drowning she had witnessed in her youth, never dreaming one of them would actually utilize the Heimlich maneuver so soon after she taught it to them.
“I just wanted them to know the importance of being able to save a life,” she said. “I’m still shocked.”