All Choked Up

Last week, my nine-year-old, Dacha, started to choke.

Not on a math test or at a gymnastics meet. I was sitting between him and my seven-year-old, and he started to physically choke on a piece of chicken.

He was coughing, so there was no reason to administer more first aid than a smart rap between his shoulder blades.

That did the trick, but his wide eyes told a story of mortality carefully examined. No "chew your food" lecture from me could ever have been as effective. The silent moment that we shared, looking at each other, was powerful confirmation that he now understood why I had implored him to slow down while eating.

As we resumed our dinner, my seven-year-old said, "Dacha, were you really choking?"

"Yes, I was."


I thought to myself: This is a good lesson for Sava, too. He should also slow down when he eats.

But Sava was headed somewhere else. "I don't think you were really choking. You just swallowed funny."

At this point, I realized that I hadn't taught either of my boys how to do abdominal thrusts. I was about to suggest we do a little first aid lesson after dinner when Dacha interjected, a bit peeved: "Sava, what would you have done if I had actually been choking to death?"

And without hesitation, Sava said, "Well, I would have asked you what you wanted on your gravestone."

Such is life with two expressive, confident, school-age boys.

They do love each other, and they play beautifully together most of the time.

But there is some normal sibling rivalry. A rivalry, it seems, that can take a bleak, if facetious, step in any direction. Ah...brotherly love.

We all began to laugh and then repeatedly replay the exchange for the benefit of their mother when she returned home that night.

But believe me, I've now taught them both how to administer first aid for a choking person.

And I have a new appreciation for both their humor and their humanity.

As far as I'm concerned, every camper-age boy and girl should know at least four safety essentials:

(1) Call 911 (in an emergency)

(2) Stop, drop, and roll (if they are on fire)

(3) Shout "Don't touch me!" (if they are handled in an unsafe way)

(4) Abdominal thrusts (if they observe someone choking)

If you're not teaching or reviewing these safety essentials at your camp, who is?

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at He is the co-creator of, a set of Internet-based-video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at