Postal Updates

D.C. letter carrier uses Heimlich maneuver to save customer’s life

Sep 14, 2023, 7 AM
In early March, while on his route delivering mail in Washington, D.C., United States Postal Service letter carrier Donald Proctor used the Heimlich maneuver to save the life of a customer who was choking.

Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel

Gregory Milton Proctor Sr. of Washington, D.C., was a United States Marine. He graduated from Ballou Senior High School in Washington and made it through basic training at Parris Island in South Carolina. In 1985, he was murdered by a man with a 20-gauge shotgun in Yuma, Ariz.

Proctor left three children and a widow who was only 21 years old. One of the children, Gregory Milton Proctor Jr., served in the U.S. Air Force and became a firefighter and an emergency medical technician.

The Marine’s youngest son, Donald Proctor, took a different path. A ninth-grade dropout in the southeast quadrant of the nation’s capital, he served 12 months in prison and vowed never again to surrender to the sweet temptations of the street.

Now, at age 39, Donald is the father of three and philosophical about his past.

“You know the stove is hot,” he said in an interview with Linn’s Stamp News. “So stop touching the stove!”

Proctor’s decision-making skills improved following his release from prison. What followed was a succession of returning-citizen and Job Corps training programs, and engagement as an apprentice plumber, heavy-equipment operator, and street cleaner.

In 2016, he landed a steady job as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service at various locations in the District of Columbia.

On March 6, 2023, Proctor was toting his satchel down Garfield Street, in the shadow of the magnificent National Cathedral, when he heard what sounded like gasps and someone being suffocated coming from the last house he had serviced.

A woman named Jennifer Patterson was choking to death on a morsel of feta cheese.

Proctor recalled Patterson as “one of my friendly customers, she always says thank you and gives me a card at Christmas.”

“Usually, I would be in the truck,” Proctor said. “But that day I decided to walk. I’m a fast walker. I put the mail in the slot and I was already at the corner when I heard what sounded like someone in distress. Maybe she was thinking, ‘Oh, the mailman’s here.’ But I was already gone.”

“Luckily, I was following Postal Service regulations and I was not wearing headphones and listening to music,” Proctor continued. “If I was, I’d be nodding to the beat, and she would be on the floor.”

“When I heard her and ran back to the house, she had managed to open the door,” Proctor said. “I asked her, ‘Are you choking or having an allergic reaction?’ I have no idea why I asked her that — I never said those words before in my life.

“From having young children, I thought I should hit her on the back, because that’s what you do if a child is choking. But that didn’t work, and she was turning purple. So I tried the Heimlich maneuver, and a big piece of cheese came flying out.

“I never had CPR training. I never had training in the Heimlich maneuver. It’s my brother who was the EMT, the firefighter, the lifeguard, the Junior ROTC, the United States Air Force. He did all of that training. There is no other way to explain it. I was used as a vessel to save that woman’s life.”

Patterson regained her breath. Then her rescuer collapsed.

“Most people, they have that moment of fear before they try to do something like that, but for me, the fear hit when I realized what I had just done,” Proctor said.

“I dropped to one knee,” he said. “I couldn’t move for three minutes. And she asked me if I was OK.”

Back on his feet, Proctor resumed delivering the mail. At the Friendship Station post office on Wisconsin Avenue NW, he told no one what had happened.

“I don’t look for attention,” he said. Five months passed, he recalled, “and nobody knew.”

But Patterson knew. She contacted the supervisors at Friendship Station and urged that Proctor be recognized for an exemplary act of empathy.

“When she did that,” Proctor said, the show began.

In late July, he received the Postmaster General Hero Award and made a television appearance in which a beaming Patterson anointed her letter carrier as “my forever angel.”

A few weeks later, Proctor understood that recognition quickly fades, but the needs of southeast Washington, D.C., are unending.

“I need to get back to giving back,” Proctor affirmed. “I need to find a way to help kids like me do better.”

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