The obvious first statement is that it’s neither wise nor appropriate to speculate on the specifics of Damar Hamlin’s cardiac event during a football game on Jan. 2 (including the possibility of commotio cordis) or his ongoing care. The public nature of his collapse induces intense curiosity but people with illness deserve privacy. Privacy in health care is in short supply. I disagree strongly with those who say his doctors ought to be giving public updates. That’s up to the family.
But there are important general concepts to consider about this incident. These include ...
Cardiac arrest can happen to anyone
People with structural heart disease or other chronic illnesses have a higher risk of arrhythmia, but the notion that athletes are immune from cardiac arrest is wrong. This sentence almost seems too obvious to write, but to this day, I hear clinicians express surprise that an athletic person has heart disease.
Survival turns on rapid and effective intervention
In the old days of electrophysiology, we used to test implantable cardioverter-defibrillators during an implant procedure by inducing ventricular fibrillation (VF) and watching the device convert it. Thankfully, trials have shown that this is no longer necessary for most implants.
When you induce VF In the EP lab, you learn quickly that a) it causes loss of consciousness in a matter of seconds, b) rapid defibrillation restores consciousness, often without the patients knowing or remembering they passed out, and c) the failure of the shock to terminate VF results in deterioration in a matter of 1-2 minutes. Even 1 minute in VF feels so long.
Need is an appropriate word in VF treatment
Clinicians often use the verb need. As in, this patient needs this pill or this procedure. It’s rarely appropriate.
But in the case of treating VF, patients truly need rapid defibrillation. Survival of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is low because there just aren’t enough automated external defibrillators (AEDs) or people trained to use them. A study of patients who had out-of-hospital cardiac arrest in Denmark found that 30-day survival almost doubled (28.8% vs. 16.4%), when the nearest AED was accessible.
Bystanders must act
The public messages are simple: If a person loses consciousness in front of you, and is not breathing normally, assume it is a cardiac arrest, call 911 to get professional help, and start hands-only chest compressions. Don’t spend time checking for a pulse or trying to wake the person. If this is not a cardiac arrest, they will soon tell you to stop compressing their chest. Seconds matter.
Chest compressions are important but what is really needed is defibrillation. A crucial step in CPR is to send someone to get an AED and get the pads attached. If this is a shockable rhythm, deliver the shock. Hamlin’s collapse emphasizes the importance of the AED; without it, his survival to the hospital would have been unlikely.