Somewhere deep inside aspiring screenwriter Paul Chepikian's compact body lurks a doctor just aching to reach out and save people from breathtaking emergencies.
Just ask the popcorn lady.
The 42-year-old Chepikian was attending a Hollywood Bowl concert last month when a Van Nuys woman sitting behind him began choking on a piece of popcorn. As concert-goers watched aghast, Chepikian calmly leaped over his seat and used the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge the popped kernel.
But that's not the first time the New Jersey native has risen to such an occasion: Last year, he performed the same emergency procedure on his fiancee as she choked on a piece of candy in a darkened movie theater.
Chepikian, who worked as a hospital security officer as a teenager and is trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, says his friends joke that he should star in his own emergency television show.
"It's wacky how these situations just sort of follow me around," he said. "But I don't mind one bit. I'm not afraid to get involved because I know what I'm doing. Everyone should."
On Tuesday, the Sherman Oaks resident was honored by a managed care health group for his quick-thinking efforts to save 58-year-old Rita Stancin at the Hollywood Bowl.
Chepikian, who has salty gray hair and wears a single dangling earring, took the award in stride.
"I'm all choked up," he quipped before the brief ceremony.
But Stancin, who works as an accountant in Century City, was emotional in her praise. "Paul was my guardian angel that night," she said. "He saved my life."
Stancin said her husband had just left to buy some food before the concert when she realized the piece of popcorn had gone down her windpipe.
"At first I was embarrassed," she said. "I thought to myself 'Don't disturb people with your gasping. Stay calm and get through this.' "
Suddenly, she couldn't breath at all. "I couldn't inhale or exhale," she said. "I was elbowing my friend but couldn't get her attention. I was in trouble."
After noticing Stancin's panicked look, Chepikian rushed behind her, wrapped his arms around her chest, and performed the Heimlich maneuver, applying repeated pressure near her sternum, finally dislodging the popcorn.
"I spent a lot of time around a hospital emergency room when I was younger so I'm pretty cool during these things," Chepikian said. "It's only later I realize that this was a near-death experience. That's when I fall apart."
Chepikian's nerves were also tested when he served as an alternate juror in the O.J. Simpson civil trial. In the wake of the verdict, he sued his former employer, a Camarillo pet products company, for firing him allegedly because of his jury service.
According to Chepikian's suit, which is scheduled to go to trial in February, he defied his bosses by declining to claim a financial hardship when the Santa Monica Superior Court asked if he could serve on the Simpson case. He said the firm retaliated by firing him from his job the day after he was selected as a Simpson alternate panelist.
As he was being honored downtown Tuesday with the Health Care Hero Award, presented by the Universal Care medical organization, Chepikian said he has played the Good Samaritan in the past.
Not long after moving to Los Angeles from New Jersey in 1979, he pulled a grandmother and her granddaughter from their crashed car in Pasadena moments after the gasoline tank ruptured.
But not all his efforts inspire such appreciation, he added.
Chepikian was once attending a Wilshire Boulevard theater for a film awards presentation when he heard a man walking ahead of him complain to his wife of chest pains and shortness of breath.
He said he followed the man into the restroom and noticed that the man was red in the face. Moments later, Chepikian asked to take the stranger's pulse and told both the man and his wife that he was having a heart attack.
"The guy essentially told me to get lost," Chepikian said. "He insisted that it was only a case of heartburn. But his pulse was racing. So, against his will, I called for a paramedic and they came and took him to a hospital."
The next day, he said, the man underwent triple bypass heart surgery. "It's funny," said Chepikian. "Even after all that, the guy with the heart attack still insisted to me that he would have been fine that night if I'd just left him alone."
But the rescue that took even Chepikian's breath away came in a darkened theater last summer after he and his soon-to-be fiancee, Terry Mason, went to see the film "Fargo."
Just as the movie was getting started, Mason said, she started gagging on a piece of Hot Tamales candy.
Like many people in similar situations, she didn't realize she was in trouble and didn't want to disturb anyone.
But Chepikian knew something was wrong. "I asked her if she could talk and she couldn't," he said. "That's the sure sign someone's choking."
So he performed the Heimlich maneuver and moments later helped her to the lobby.