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Childhood choking memories can reappear decades later

This column explores a highly entertaining subject: the difference between choking and coughing.

Sometimes in Janet's World we must take the unlikely, potentially controversial subject and pursue it purely for the sake of The Sun copy editors downtown. These former English majors have to read a lot of stories about depressing news events, and painstakingly check them for accuracy and integrity. Late in the week, the Janet's World column comes across their desks, and all of their training goes out the window.

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What are they supposed to do with this journalistic walk on the wild side? They know choking is not funny, and neither is coughing, but they can't really point to any research. One of them, upon reading this very paragraph, may even be experiencing a bit of a nervous cough. Well, don't worry, copy editor. It is not choking. It is just coughing.

When you are choking, you are making very few sounds. This is because your airway is blocked, and you can't very well speak, or breathe.

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When you're in the midst of a coughing fit, you will know it because people will ask you repeatedly, "Are you OK? Did something go down the wrong pipe?" In spite of your frantic signals that you cannot answer, they will remain undeterred, pestering you until you utter a hoarse "I'm fine." This is annoying. Most of us are perfectly willing to explain the nature and cause of our coughing fit, but not during our coughing fit, for heaven's sake!

Finally, here is a one sure way to differentiate the conditions: you won't necessarily remember your coughing spells. But you will never forget choking.

Because education is the primary mission of the Janet's World column -- with its secondary mission being allowing me to toil in a workplace where the dress code includes fleece robes -- I will now launch into a choking story from my childhood.

I was about 4 or 5 years old, and my mother took my siblings and me out to a Nedick's hot dog restaurant.

If you do not know Nedick's, I'm sorry, but you do not know hot dogs. Nedick's hot dogs have a casing that's just so perfect when grilled -- your teeth break through with a gentle pop, releasing the garlicky-sweet flavor of the juicy sausage inside that combines next with the tang of classic yellow mustard to create a baseball diamond of fun in your mouth.

Of course, today we know that hot dogs are a choking hazard, but back in 1965, your mom could throw you a birthday party and feature hot dogs, grapes, peanuts and popcorn on the menu, with no danger of being showcased on Dr. Phil as an irresponsible parent.

At any rate, my mom decided to take us to Nedick's because they were having a free puppet show. This was a recipe for disaster.

I took a bite of my hot dog. The curtain opened and a scary puppet came out. I don't remember which one because I think all puppets are scary.

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I did the classic inhalation of surprise. The hot dog lodged in my throat.

I looked at one of my brothers and punched him viciously in the arm, which at the time was the accepted international symbol for choking. He yelled to my mom, who clapped me hard between the shoulder blades. Nothing happened. Suddenly, inexplicably, I was hanging by my heels and being shaken by a total stranger, diverting considerable attention from the puppet show. Miraculously, the hot dog was dislodged.

My mom got me another one, and you might say I ate it with relish, watching the rest of the puppet show with the odd mind-set of trying very hard not ever to be surprised.

But this I know from having a brush with death by choking -- it is not a bright white light one sees. It is an upside-down marionette.

Contact Janet at janet@janetgilbert.net


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