Austin Wells

LaPorte County Sheriff Patrol Deputy Officer Austin Wells illustrates how he successfully performed the Heimlich maneuver Tuesday on a motorist.

Bob Kasarda, The Times

LAPORTE — A LaPorte County woman has one local police officer to be grateful for this Thanksgiving holiday.

LaPorte native Austin Wells, who has been on the job for less than a year with the county Sheriff's Department, potentially saved her from choking to death Tuesday morning.

Wells said he was driving southbound on U.S. 421 near Interstate 94 around 10:30 a.m. when he clocked a maroon Honda SUV driving 70 mph northbound in a 45-mph zone.

He said he made a U-turn and stopped the 65-year-old driver on nearby County Road 400 North at Cleveland Street.

"You could tell she was in extreme distress," he said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon near the scene of the traffic stop.

The woman's lips were blue, her face was turning reddish purple and she clearly could not breathe, Wells said. He guessed she was either overdosing on drugs or choking.

When she indicated the latter, Wells said he pulled the woman from her vehicle, positioned himself behind her and gave four quick thrusts to her abdomen as he had been trained in the Heimlich maneuver.

"I didn't have time to think," he said.

Whatever had been obstructing the woman's airway was cleared as a result of the officer's efforts, though Wells said he never saw an object leave her mouth.

"She just kept repeating, 'Thank you. Thank you,'" he said.

"It could have been a tragedy had I not been there or another officer been there," Wells said.

The woman was unable to be reached to take part in Wednesday's news conference, said Capt. Michael Kellems, public information officer for the LaPorte County Sheriff’s Department.

The woman, who declined further medical treatment after an ambulance arrived on the scene, told Wells she had been eating honey mustard nuts before choking. She said she was speeding looking for a place to stop her car to work on clearing her airway.

Wells suggested that anyone choking while driving should pull over immediately rather than risk passing out and crashing. He said there are also methods of applying the Heimlich maneuver to oneself.

Wells said he has made lots of traffic stops during his first five months on the job, but Wednesday's encounter will stand out for him.

"I'm definitely going to remember this one," he said.

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Porter/LaPorte county reporter

Bob is a 23-year veteran of The Times. He covers county government and courts in Porter County, federal courts, police news and regional issues. He also created the Vegan in the Region blog, is an Indiana University grad and lifelong region resident.