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Lee Health Expert Weighs in on Hamlin Heart Case

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Author name: Lee Health

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin makes his living tackling opponents. On Jan. 2, in an evening game between the Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals, the 24-year-old collided with another player while attempting to make a tackle. After the hit, he stood up and then fell to the field. 

First responders rushed to his side within 10 seconds. Hamlin received CPR and was shocked with an automated external defibrillator (AED) to restore his heart’s natural rhythm. He was given oxygen, placed in an ambulance, and transported to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center (UCMC). 

Since his on-field sudden cardiac arrest, Hamlin—who was sedated and placed on a ventilator after his collapse—has progressed remarkably. He awoke and had his breathing tube removed, allowing him to talk with his family and care team. Then on Sunday Jan. 8, he watched his team play from his hospital bed, sending messages on social media (including pictures of himself) during the game.

He was released from the hospital Monday, Jan. 9, and returned home to Buffalo after nearly a week at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Dr. William A. Knight told reporters that he accompanied Hamlin to the airport on Monday morning, adding that the second-year safety was "doing well" and is in the "beginning of the next stage of his recovery" with the team at Buffalo General Medical Center, according to the Buffalo News.

What is sudden cardiac arrest?

Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is a condition in which the heart suddenly stops beating. Blood flow stops to the brain and other vital organs. If not immediately treated, SCA can cause death within minutes. But quick treatment with a defibrillator may be lifesaving.

How is SCA different from a heart attack?

During a heart attack—when blood flow to the heart is blocked—it usually doesn't suddenly stop beating. With an SCA, the heart stops beating. Sometimes an SCA can happen after or during recovery from a heart attack.

Dr. Richard Chazal, a board-certified cardiologist with Lee Physician Group, told WINK News that the presumed cause of Hamlin’s SCA is rare. He said it could happen when a blow to the chest jolts the heart muscle, causing it to stop beating, a phenomenon known as commotio cordis.

Dr. Chazal said commotio cordis as a cause of cardiac arrest is unusual because the blow must be to a certain area of the chest, of sufficient force, and occur within a very brief window of time between heartbeats (measured in milliseconds).

Fewer than 20 cases of commotio cordis are reported in the U.S. each year.

The immediate administration of defibrillation and CPR is critical during a cardiac arrest, according to Dr. Chazal.

“Immediate defibrillation means shocking the heart to get it back into a normal rhythm, so it pumps again,” he explained. “The sooner that regular rhythm is restored, and the heart returns to pumping, the better the prognosis. It means a minimum amount of time the brain was not getting adequate oxygen.”

“It is difficult to know exactly when Hamlin’s heart stopped beating, but possibly near the time of the impact. This is a well-conditioned athlete whose normal heart rate is probably very low because his body is extremely efficient. He had a lot of epinephrine because he was excited,” Dr. Chazal told WINK News. “So, it’s conceivable that when he stood up, his heart was already not beating. And it just took a moment for that drop in blood pressure to hit his brain to cause him to blackout.”

Although Hamlin has been released home, he will still undergo tests, evaluation, and close monitoring to check his progress.

Have questions about your heart?

Lee Health Cardiolovascular Services, the largest heart program in Southwest Florida, provides comprehensive treatment options for a wide variety of conditions. We invite you to learn more about these conditions, along with tests we perform, preventive care options, hospital services, and other essential information.

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