Dr. Paul Krogstad rushed to the commotion and found longtime friend, Dr. Royce Johnson, tending to a community leader who was choking on a piece of meat.
After the Heimlich maneuver failed to open Pauline Larwood's airway, Johnson called out for a knife. A fellow doctor handed him a pocket knife that he always carries around. Johnson quickly made an incision near Larwood's throat. Krogstad, who was kneeling next to Johnson, broke a pen-like device in half that Johnson used as a breathing tube.
"He's a well-trained physician who didn't hesitate to step up. He was very calm, skillful and careful," said Krogstad, a pediatrician at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital.
The doctors were in Bakersfield, 110 miles north of Los Angeles, for a summit on valley fever, a fungal respiratory infection that has surged in California and the Southwest.
Some of the nation's top doctors attended Monday's meeting, including Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Johnson, chief of infectious diseases at Kern Medical Center, had appeared on stage with Frieden and Collins earlier that day.
Frieden was at the restaurant that night and monitored Larwood's pulse as Johnson cleared her airway, Krogstad said.
Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, said she, her husband and state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, were seated at a table with Larwood and her husband when she started choking. Grove said her husband ran to Larwood and tried to perform the Heimlich maneuver. He called for a doctor and Johnson attempted the technique as well.
"She had already started turning a real like blue, her fingers and her lips," Grove told the Bakersfield Californian.
The emergency procedure lasted several minutes before paramedics arrived to take Larwood to the hospital.
Larwood, a community college board trustee and former Kern County supervisor, was doing fine, her son told the Bakersfield Californian.
"Seeing a life saved in seconds was a moving experience," Frieden said in a statement.
Doctors praised Johnson for his quick thinking, but said only a trained professional should attempt what he did.
"This isn't something to try at home," said Dr. Howard Mell, a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, who was not at the dinner.
Mell said the incision was "like a bad cut" that should heal quickly.
Johnson declined a request for comment.