Court justice, Austin teacher rush to choking man’s aid at Chick-fil-A

5:24 p.m Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017 Local
Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett (left) and Austin teacher Herson De La Garza take a photo after rushing to a choking man’s aid at an Austin Chick-fil-A. Photo courtesy of Don Willett

Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett took no time at all to render his decision: The piece of food stuck in the Chick-fil-A customer’s throat Tuesday evening had to be set free.

“I was hunched over my MacBook, munching some Chick-fil-A chicken strips while discussing errands with my wife on my cell,” the judge told the American-Statesman. Suddenly, another customer rushed to the booth in front of him, he said, and “started performing the Heimlich maneuver on a dad who was dining with his young daughter.”

The choking man, 53-year-old Danny Martinez, blamed the gluten-free bun he ordered at the restaurant on South MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and U.S. 290 for the evening’s pandemonium in which the judge and an Austin middle school teacher helped save his life.

“I think that was my big mistake,” Martinez told the Statesman on Wednesday. “The gluten-free bun was kind of dry, and it got stuck in my throat and I couldn’t breathe.”

Martinez said he stood up and locked eyes with Herson De La Garza, a Gorzycki Middle School assistant band director who was standing in front of him, and motioned that he needed help.

“He came right over, put his arms around and tried to get the Heimlich going on me,” Martinez said.

Martinez, a Boy Scout leader, said he’s known how to perform the Heimlich maneuver for around 40 years. He said he adjusted De La Garza’s hands and got them into correct position to force the piece of bread from his throat.

“I always told my Boy Scouts that you need to learn this because the life you save could be mine, but I was always joking,” he said.

Willett said De La Garza “had given three or four upward abdominal thrusts, but (Martinez) was still choking.”

“I hung up on my wife (first time in 21 years!) and jumped up,” the judge said. “Herson stepped aside, and I gave a quick thrust or two, dislodging the nugget and clearing the airway.”

Willett was quick to credit De La Garza’s swift initial response.

“Herson was first on the scene and deserves enormous praise. I’m writing a letter to the superintendent recounting Herson’s Heimlich heroism. This all happened in the blink of an eye,” Willett said. “I implore everyone to get trained on the Heimlich, CPR, and other basic life-saving skills.”

You could say Willett got a little choked up recounting his encounter with Martinez.

“I squeezed my wife and three wee Willetts a little tighter (that night), and we prayed for this man’s dear family. Life is precious — and fleeting,” he said.

Willett, a Republican judge on the state Supreme Court whose humorous musings on Twitter led the Texas House to dub him the state’s “Tweeter Laureate” in 2015, is now in line to join the federal bench. President Donald Trump in September nominated Willett to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The court has made major rulings in recent years on the regulation of the oil and gas industry, abortion and voting rights.

Martinez said he’d seen Willett walk in with a laptop and work at a table near him, but had no idea who he was. He said he only realized it was the judge after his wife told him later.

“We may have different politics, but he saved my life, and that’s a good thing,” Martinez said. “When it comes down to it, we’re all just people, and that’s what people do. They help each other. We see that after hurricanes and big events, and we see that in a Chick-fil-A restaurant.”