Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest: Key lessons


This discussion was recorded on Jan. 9, 2023. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Robert D. Glatter, MD: Welcome. I’m Dr. Robert D. Glatter, medical adviser for Medscape Emergency Medicine. Today, we have Dr. Paul E. Pepe, an emergency medicine physician based in Florida and a highly recognized expert in emergency medical services (EMS), critical care, sports and event medicine, and resuscitation. Also joining us is Dr. Michael S. (“Mick”) Malloy, an emergency medicine physician based in Ireland, also an expert in prehospital care, resuscitation, and sports and event medicine. Welcome, gentlemen.

Dr. Pepe: Thanks for having us here.

Dr. Glatter: We have a serious event to discuss today. We’re going to be talking about what happened to Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills safety who went down suffering a cardiac arrest in front of millions of people. Although we don’t know the exact cause of the events that transpired, the goal of our discussion is to guide our audience through a systematic approach to evaluation and management of an athlete suffering blunt force chest and neck trauma, and then suffering a cardiac arrest. We do know, obviously, that Damar was successfully resuscitated, thanks to the medical staff and trainers.

Almost 50 years ago, Chuck Hughes, a Detroit Lions receiver, went down and died with just a minute to go in the game and, unfortunately, didn’t survive.

Paul, can you tell me your impressions after viewing the replay of the events that evening? What were the most likely causes of this syncopal event and the subsequent cardiac arrest?

Dr. Pepe: We don’t know anything specifically. It’s being kept private about what the events were. It’s a little bit complicated in a sense that he basically had an extended resuscitation in the hospital. My experience has been that most people that have ventricular fibrillation, from whatever cause, will most likely be waking up on the field if you get to them. I’ve had personal experience with that.

More importantly than when it starts, when someone goes down on the field, both Dr. Malloy and I take a broader view. We don’t get tunnel vision and think, “Oh, it was a traumatic event,” or “It was cardiac event,” and we just have our minds open. There are many things that could make you stop breathing on the field. It could be a neck or a severe head injury, and then any kind of other internal injury that occurs.

When I saw in the video that Damar Hamlin stood up, that made it a less likely to be a spinal injury. He seemed to be physically functioning, and then he suddenly collapsed. That went along with something that looks like a ventricular fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia type of event and made me think right away that it was commotio cordis. I’m not a Latin scholar, but commotio is like commotion. A literal translation might be an agitation of the heart. I was thinking that he probably got hit somewhere in the middle of the chest at the right moment where the heart is resetting in that repolarization phase, like an R-on-T phenomenon, and then caused this sudden ventricular dysrhythmia.

Most people associate it to that because we have a couple of dozen cases a year of people getting hockey pucks or a baseball hitting their chest, which is very common with adolescents. On the other hand, you can’t get it from a blunt injury like this, and it was too early for it to be, say, a direct cardiac contusion, unless there was a direct injury there. It just happened so quickly.

In Europe, they’ve had a large amount of experience with this same kind of problem before, even just from a direct shoulder hit, for example. Mick Malloy is the dean of the faculty of sports and exercise medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and has vast experience, and now he is the person overseeing the procedures for this. Mick, have you had those kinds of experiences as well?

Dr. Molloy: Yes. It’s something that has occurred over recent decades and has been more recognized. I note that in professional sports, it’s a very different thing because you’ve got such huge teams and teams trained to respond very quickly. And that’s the most important thing in this scenario – having a team that is well functioning as a high-class emergency response team ready to get out on to that field very quickly after the person collapses, getting the automated external defibrillator (AED) on, and then recognizing whether there needs to be a shock given or not. The machine will tell you all that.

In our scenario, we run courses called CARES (Care of the Athlete Resuscitation and Emergencies in Sport) to make sure that our team physicians and team physiotherapists and trainers are all speaking as one when an emergency arises.

I don’t worry so much about the professional sport. It’s more with the amateur sports and the kids sports that I get a bit more concerned because there isn’t the same level of medical care there. Having everybody trained in basic life support would be very important to reduce unnecessary deaths from these types of conditions.

As Paul mentioned, there is a very specific cardiac cause in some of these circumstances, where you get hit just at the wrong time and that hit occurs at a particular electrical point in time. It causes this ventricular fibrillation, and the only real treatment there is the defibrillator as quickly as possible.

Dr. Glatter: What you’re saying ultimately is an important part about rapid defibrillation, and at first, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). People are concerned about whether they should begin CPR. We’re talking about out-of-hospital cardiac arrest that is outside of a football stadium, for example. Some people are obsessed with taking a person’s pulse, and that’s been a point of contention. If someone is unconscious and not breathing, we should start CPR. Wouldn›t you agree? They will wake up quickly if you begin chest compressions if they’re not necessary.

Dr. Pepe: I tell people, just do it. You’re right, people will wake up and feel it if they don’t need it.

Getting back to Mick’s point of having things ready to go, for example, 8 years ago, we had a professional player on the bench who suddenly collapsed right there in front of the entire audience. We immediately did CPR, and we got the AED on. We shocked him and he was ready, willing, and able to get back on the bench again. It turns out he had underlying coronary artery disease, but we got him back right away.

I did an initial study where we placed an AED in a public place at the Chicago O’Hare Airport to see if the public would use these. Most cardiac arrests occur at home, of course, but in public places, that was a good place to try it. We had almost 10 cases the first year. What was fascinating was that we had almost no survivors over the previous decade, even though there were paramedics at the airport. When we put these out there, we had nine people go down that first year, and six people who had never operated an AED or seen one before knew to get one and use it. Every one of those people survived neurologically intact, and almost every person was waking up before traditional responders got there. That’s how effective this is, but you need to know where the AED is.

Dr. Glatter: How to turn it on, where it is, and how to operate it.

Dr. Pepe: That was the point: These rescuers saved lives in the first year, and it was tremendous. Two points I make about it are that one, you need to know where it is, and two, just go turn it on. It gives you the instructions to follow through; just be in the Nike mode, because it basically won’t hurt a person. It’s rare that there’s ever been any complication of that. The machine algorithms are so good.

Dr. Glatter: Mick, I want to turn to you about the European experience. Specifically in Denmark, we know that there’s a large public health initiative to have AEDs accessible. There have been studies showing that when the public is engaged, especially with studies looking at an app when access is available, survivability doubled in the past 10 years from having access to AEDs. What’s your experience in Ireland in terms of public access to defibrillators?

Dr. Molloy: We’ve got two different streams here. There was a big push to have more AEDs at all sports venues. That was great, but some of the sporting clubs put them inside the locked door. I said that there’s no point to that because nobody can access it. You need to have an external building and you need to leave it open. If somebody needs to use it, they need to know how to get it, open it, and get away, and not get in through a locked door to get access to a defibrillator. We have AEDs now in most stadiums and even in small rural areas, where you might have only 200 people turn up for a game.

From another public access side, if you dial in – in our scenario, it’s 112, not 911 –we have Community First Responder groups. In the rural areas, you have local people who’ve been trained in basic life support and community first response who have AEDs. They’ll have periods of the day where they come home from work as a teacher, a nurse, a policeman, or a fireman, and they turn on an app on their phone and say, “I’m available for the next 5 hours.” If there’s a cardiac arrest rung in within 5 miles of their community, they will drive directly there with the AED that they have. We’ve had numerous saves from that in the country because it could take 40 minutes to get an EMS vehicle there, and obviously, time is crucial in these scenarios. Our dispatchers will talk people through CPR, and then the community responders arrive with the AED. It has been a fantastic initiative.

Dr. Pepe: In many places, people have apps on their phones where they’re locked into the system, and it will go off and tell them there is something nearby and even GPS them into it, and it’s been fantastic.

The two points I want to make to responding to what we just heard Dean Malloy say is one, we always have a designated spot to have these in various places. If I’m at City Hall, we always have them near the red elevators on every floor and down at security. In all the public high schools, we always have one right below the clock where everybody can see it. We set it up in a very standardized form that anybody and everybody will know where it is at the time an event happens.

The other point he made about having the response teams is fantastic. I live in a large high rise and there are two complexes with many people here, and many are older, so there’s going to be a higher risk for having an event. In fact, we’ve just had one recently. The concept we developed here was a community emergency response team, where we sometimes have doctors, nurses, and paramedics who live here be on call and be responsible, or you could try to find an AED. More importantly, we made sure everybody here knew where they were and where to get them. We’ve got most of the people trained, and we’re doing more training in what actions to take during these periods of time when such events happen.

Dr. Glatter: Yes, it’s critical. I wanted to point out that we’ve looked at the use of drones, especially here in the United States. There have been some pilot studies looking at their utility in the setting of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. I want to get both of your thoughts on this and the feasibility of this.

Dr. Molloy: In a rural area, it’s a fantastic idea. You’re going to get something there as the crow flies very quickly. You probably have to look at exactly in, say, a rural area like Ireland of 32,000 square kilometers, how many you›ll have to put, what kind of distances they can realistically cover, and make sure the batteries are charged. Certainly, that’s a very good initiative because with the AEDs, you can’t do anything wrong. You can’t give a shock unless a shock needs to be given. The machine directs you what to do, so somebody who has had no training can pick one of these out of the box and start to work with it quickly and confidently that they can’t do anything wrong.

It’s a great idea. It would be a little expensive potentially at the moment in getting the drones and having that volume of drones around. In the U.S., you have completely different air traffic than we have, and in cities, you have more helicopters flying around. We certainly wouldn’t have that in our cities because that could cause a challenge if you’ve got drones flying around as well. It’s about making it safe that nothing else can go wrong from a drone in somebody else’s flight path.

Dr. Pepe: In my experience, the earlier the intervention, the better the results. There is a limit here in terms of the drones if they just can’t get there soon enough. Having said that, we are so fortunate in the city of Seattle to have most citizens knowing CPR, and we’d get that person resuscitated because they were doing such a good job with the CPR up front.

That’s why you’re going to see the Buffalo Bills player survive neurologically intact – because he did get immediate treatment right then and there. In the future, we may even have some better devices that will actually even restore normal blood flow right then and there while you’re still in cardiac arrest. There are limitations in every case. But on the other hand, it’s exciting and it paid off in this case recently.

Dr. Molloy: Just a point of interest coming from this small little country over here. The first portable defibrillator was developed in Belfast, Ireland, in the back of a cardiac response car. Despite us being a tiny little country, we do have some advances ahead of the United States.


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