But it turned out she picked the best one possible during a meal this week.
Though she didn’t know it at the time, sitting beside her was Henry Heimlich, inventor of the first-aid procedure designed to dislodge an obstruction from a choking person’s airway with a wraparound bear hug from behind and some abdomen squeezing, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
The identity of her fellow diner could have gone unnoticed, but fate intervened.
“I ordered a hamburger, and the next thing I know, I could not breathe I was choking so hard,” Ris told the New York Times.
Since he developed the technique in 1974, Heimlich said he’d never tried his technique on a real choking person, though he’s simulated his invention for countless students. On Monday — as the 96-year-old enjoyed a meal in the Deupree House dining room — a chance to put the maneuver into action finally materialized.
“I saw her face was all stiffened up and her skin was turning dark and she could not speak,” Heimlich told the Times. “Of all things, I knew she was choking.”
By the time staffers reached Ris, the doctor had already assumed his position behind her and initiated the maneuver.
Perry Gaines, the maitre d’, told the Enquirer that staffers would normally intervene, but this time was different.
“It is Dr. Heimlich,” he said.
Heimlich told the Times that after three squeezes on her abdomen, a small piece of meat with some bone was ejected from Ris’s mouth.
“When I used it, and she recovered quickly,” Heimlich told the Enquirer, “it made me appreciate how wonderful it has been to be able to save all those lives.”
Gaines said the incident was quickly forgotten, with the room’s 125 diners returning to their meals after Ris’s recovery.
Though Heimlich maintains it was his first instance of using the technique he originated, a BBC article from 2003 suggests otherwise.
“I was in this club restaurant eating when I heard someone calling Dr Heimlich,” he told the BBC, referring to an incident in 2000. “I turned around and saw a man choking so I did the Heimlich Manoeuvre and got it out and then went on and had my lunch.”
The name of the choking victim and the location were not mentioned in the article.
Beneficiaries of the technique — which is credited with saving more than 100,000 lives — include Cher, Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, Goldie Hawn, Walter Matthau, Carrie Fisher and Jack Lemmon, according to the BBC.
The doctor’s son, Phil Heimlich, told the Enquirer that his father frequently meets people who have used the technique or had it used on them.
“Just the fact that a 96-year-old man could perform that is impressive,” he said.
Bryan Reynolds, a spokesman for Episcopal Retirement Services, which owns the Deupree House, told the paper that Heimlich has lived at the facility for about six years and remains very active.
“He goes to the dining room every evening,” Reynolds said.
In a cheerful video interview with the paper, Ris noted that she wrote her savior a thank-you note after their serendipitous encounter.
“I said, ‘God put me in this seat right next to you, Dr. Heimlich, so you could save my life,” she recalled. “Because I was gone, I couldn’t breathe at all for a long time.”