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SportsWatch: Damar Hamlin’s doctors say every second mattered in saving his life

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The Buffalo Bills’ emergency medical team had minutes — maybe seconds — to save Damar Hamlin’s life, according to his doctors. 

And the good news, so far, is that they seem to have treated him in the nick of time. 

The Bills safety went into sudden cardiac arrest during Monday night’s football game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Horrified spectators watched the 24-year-old collapse on the field after making a tackle. His doctors revealed in a press conference on Thursday that emergency medical personnel were at Hamlin’s side in less than a minute. They promptly recognized that he didn’t have a pulse, and gave immediate bystander CPR and defibrillation to get his heart beating and circulating blood and oxygen throughout his body again “very quickly.” 

And that likely made all the difference. 

“The Bills training staff recognized this was not a run-of-the-mill injury, immediately responded, and got the emergency response team involved in his care,” said Dr. Timothy Pritts, vice chair for clinical operations at UC Health. (Hamlin is being treated at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center’s intensive care unit.) And as a result, “this went as well as something like this could go,” he said. “They did a fantastic job.” 

Such quick, life-saving actions didn’t just save his life, but also his brain function, the doctors added.

And as Hamlin’s medical and football teams reported on Thursday, while he is not out of the woods yet, he continues to make “remarkable improvement,” and he seems to be “neurologically intact.” Even more hopeful, his agent told CNN that Hamlin is awake and has been holding hands with his family.

When a reporter asked Pritts if perhaps there would have been a worse, much more tragic outcome if it had taken a few extra minutes or even seconds for emergency responders to get Hamlin’s heart beating again, the doctor said, “I think that’s fair to say. 

“This is what has led us to be able to discuss these good outcomes today,” he added. 

This is vital information for people who have been spooked by Hamlin’s on-camera cardiac arrest. It’s not often one sees a young athlete, at the peak of their physical prime, suffer such a traumatic cardiac event. And the situation has led global Google searches for “What is commotio cordis?” and “What is cardiac arrest” to become the top two “what is…” queries on the Alphabet-owned search engine in the days after Hamlin’s horrifying incident. 

Related: Damar Hamlin ‘has shown remarkable improvement,’ according to Buffalo Bills

And among the most searched questions have been queries about whether cardiac arrests are common in athletes, as well as how to prevent a sudden cardiac arrest.

First, it should be noted that a sudden cardiac arrest is different from a heart attack. A sudden cardiac arrest occurs when there’s a sudden loss of heart function, breathing and consciousness, usually stemming from problems with your heart’s electrical system, according to the Mayo Clinic. In comparison, a heart attack happens when blood supply to the heart muscle is severely reduced or blocked, such as from cholesterol deposits clogging arteries, or a blood clot. In fact, a heart attack can sometimes trigger an electrical disturbance that leads to sudden cardiac arrest.

And sudden cardiac arrests are quite rare among athletes. Research suggests the likelihood of sudden cardiac death in high school athletes is between 1 in 50,000 to 1 in 80,000, with male athletes running a greater risk. For college-aged players, the risk is estimated at 1 in 13,426. The American College of Cardiology has reported approximately 100 to 150 sudden cardiac deaths each year during competitive sports in the United States.

Dr. Doris Chan, interventional cardiologist at NYU Langone Hospital-Brooklyn, agreed that the best possible outcome from a sudden cardiac arrest comes from getting the person treated as quickly as possible. And that’s because sudden cardiac arrest and sudden cardiac death among athletes is “extremely, extremely rare,” she said, noting that young athletes like Hamlin are not only generally healthy, but they also usually undergo plenty of screening before taking the field. 

“But when it does happen, it’s usually related to blunt trauma,” she said. “It has to happen at the right place at the right time.” 

Related: Damar Hamlin supporters contribute $7 million to GoFundMe campaign he started in 2020

It can be fatal if it causes commotio cordis, which is when a sudden blunt impact to the chest — such as being hit by something like a baseball or hockey puck, or perhaps from playing a collision sport like football — puts the person into an arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) that causes sudden cardiac death. 

Such sudden cardiac arrests and deaths are so rare because they require a perfect storm to occur. “They [the victim] have blunt trauma from a basketball or someone tackling them, hitting the chest in just the right spot with the right amount of force at the right time,” she explained — or, if you will, at the wrong time. 

A protective system, like padding, that redistributes the impact across the chest can help, in theory. But more research is needed. Indeed, most health experts agree that, besides getting regular health checkups and being screened for heart disease, the key to surviving this type of cardiac event is in the rapid response

“The most effective strategy right now is, unfortunately, not preventative but reactive,” Chan said. And that means recognizing when someone is suffering a sudden cardiac arrest immediately, and responding “within seconds to minutes with high-quality compressions from CPR from trained professionals.”

She added that, “If you have this perfect storm and something like this unfortunately does happen in front of your eyes, the best, best measure is to have everybody trained in at least basic life support, and to be able to identify the issue immediately and be able to perform high quality CPR. That really does save lives.” 

It’s also important to have access to an automated external defibrillator, or AED, and to have someone trained to use it. “It can help you identify if you have a shockable rhythm or it’s not shockable and you need to continue just CPR,” she said.

To be clear, the exact cause of Hamlin’s sudden cardiac arrest remains unknown. When reporters asked his doctors whether it was the actions on the field, or perhaps an underlying medical condition that led to the cardiac arrest, they said that they still don’t have definite answers, and tests will continue to be done as Hamlin recovers.

Dr. Chan at NYU recognized there’s been “lots of Googling going on,” and shared that she’s had friends and family reaching out to her, too, concerned about their heart health, and what they can do to protect themselves and their loved ones playing sports. 

“Everyone is fearful to start an exercise program, especially since the new year is here,” she said. But she urged that it’s still important to exercise to keep your heart strong; just check with your doctor, cardiologist or other trusted health professional before you begin a new workout regimen. “If anyone has any concerns … seek out a professional,” she said. “They can help you answer all of those questions.”  

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