Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest: Key lessons


Dr. Pepe: That was a breakthrough. Dr. Frank Pantridge and John Geddes did this great work and that caught the imagination of everybody here. At first, they were just going out to give people oxygen and sedate them for their chest pain. It turned out that their defibrillators are what made the difference as they went out there. Absolutely, I have to acknowledge the folks in Ireland for giving us this. Many of the EMS systems got started because of the article they published in The Lancet back in 1967.

Dr. Glatter: I wanted to briefly talk about screening of the athletes at the high school/college level, but also at the professional level. Obviously, there are issues, including the risk for false-positives in terms of low incidence, but there are also false negatives, as the case with Christian Eriksen, who had a cardiac arrest in 2021 and who has been through extensive testing. We can debate the validity of such testing, but I wanted to get both of your takes on the utility of screening in such a population.

Dr. Molloy: That’s a very emotive subject. False-positives are difficult because you’re now saying to somebody that they can’t compete in your sport at a decent level. The difficult part is telling somebody that this is the end of their career.

The false-negative is a little bit more difficult. I don’t know Christian Eriksen and I’m not involved in his team in any way, but that is a one-point examination, and you’re dependent on the scale of the process interpreting the ECG, which is again only a couple of seconds and that particular arrhythmia may not have shown up on that.

Also, athletes, by nature of what they’re doing, are operating at 99% of efficiency on a frequent basis. They are at the peak of their physiologic fitness, and it does make them a little bit more prone to picking up viral illnesses from time to time. They may get a small viral myopericarditis, which causes a new arrhythmia that nobody knew about. They had the screening 2 or 3 years ago, and they now developed a new problem because of what they do, which just may not show up.

I was actually surprised that the gentleman came through it very well, which is fantastic. He wasn’t allowed to play football in the country where he was employed, and he has now moved to another country and is playing football with a defibrillator inserted. I don’t know what the rules are in American football where you can play with implantable defibrillators. I’m not so sure it’s a great idea to do that.

Dr. Pepe: One thing that we should bring up is that there are athletes with underlying cardiomyopathies or hypertrophies and things like that, but that was unlikely in this case. It’s possible, but it’s unlikely, because it would have manifested itself before. In terms of screening, I’ve met some very smart medical doctors who have run those tests, and they have been very encouraged even at the high school levels to have screenings done, whether it’s electrocardiography, echocardiography, and so on. I have to reiterate what Dr Malloy just said in that it may have its downsides as well. If you can pick up real obvious cases, I think that may be of value.

Dr. Glatter: I want to conclude and get some pearls and takeaways from each of you regarding the events that transpired and what our audience can really hold onto.

Dr. Molloy: Look at Formula One in the past 50 years. In Formula One, in the beginning it was a 2-minute job to change a tire. Now, they have this down where they’re measuring in fractions of a second and criticizing each other if one guy is 2.6 seconds and the other guy is 2.9 seconds. For me, that’s phenomenal. It takes me 25 minutes to change a tire.

We’ve looked at that from a resuscitation perspective, and we now do pit crew resuscitation before our events. We’ve planned our team and know who’s going to be occupying what role. After the events at the UEFA championships, we had a new rule brought in by UEFA where they handed me a new document saying, “This is what we would like you to do for resuscitation.” It was a three-man triangle, and I said, “No, we’re not going to do that here.” And they said, “Why, you have to; it’s our rule.”

I said, “No, our rule in Ireland is we have a six-person triangle. We’re not downing our standards because of what you have internationally. You’re covering games in some very low-resource environments, I know that. We have a particular standard here that we’re sticking to. We have a six-person group. We know what we’re all doing; we come very quickly to those downed players and get involved and we’ve had good outcomes, so we’re not going to change the standards.”

That’s the thing: You need to practice these things. The players don’t go out on the weekend and do a move for the very first time without practicing it hundreds of times. We need to look at it the same way as the medical team who are looking after that group of players and the crowd because we also look after the crowd.

A particular challenge in some of our stadiums is that the upper decks are so steep, and it’s very hard to get a patient onto a trolley and do CPR as you’re bringing them down to a zone to get them flat. We’ve had to come up with some innovative techniques to try and do that and accommodate that using some of the mechanical CPR devices. That’s the result you’ll only get from having practiced these events and trying to extricate patients. We want to check response times, so you have to practice your response team activity very frequently.

Dr. Pepe: There are two points made by Mick that I want to react to. One, the pit crew approach is critical in so many ways. We do the same thing in what we call the medical first attack, where we knew who the A, B, and C person would be. When we took it out to the NBA trainers, I recommended for them to have a similar approach so that if an event does happen right in the middle of prime time, they are coordinated.

The second point is that we do mass-gathering medicine. It’s not just the sportspeople on the field or the entertainers that we’re looking after; it is the people in the stands. We will see a cardiac arrest once a month. If you think about it, you might see a cardiac arrest occur in any community on a regular basis. Now you’ve got 100,000 people in one stadium, and something is bound to go wrong over those 3 or 4 hours where they are there and may have a critical emergency. Preparation for all of that is really important as well.

The final point is that on a day-to-day basis, most cardiac arrests do occur in the home. Granted, 80% of them are nonshockable cases, but the people who are more apt to survive are going to be the ones who have an electrical event. In fact, when we looked at our data years ago, we found that, of the cases of people with ventricular fibrillation that we resuscitated, half didn’t even have heart damage. Their enzymes were normal. It was a pure electrical event, and they were more resuscitable. They may have an underlying problem, but we can fix that once we get them back.

Everybody needs to know how to do bystander CPR, and second, we must make sure we have AEDs strategically placed, as I alluded to before. We also go out to other parts of the community and give them advice. All those things must be put in place, but more importantly, just get the training and make the training simple. It’s really a “just do it” philosophy, but make it simple.

For example, when I teach a course, I can do it in 15 minutes, and people retain it because I keep reiterating things like, “Okay, there’s one thing you need to know about choking: Pop the cork.” You give them a physiologic image of what’s happening. Everybody says, “I remember you saying to just do it, pop the cork.”

With AEDs, know where it is – that’s why we should have it in standardized places. Go get it, turn it on, and then follow the instructions. Also, the most important thing is making sure you’re doing quality compressions; and there are videos that can help you with that, as well as classes that you can take that will get you through it.

Dr. Glatter: Absolutely. The public still has the misconception that you need to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The message has not permeated through society that you don’t need to do mouth-to-mouth. Hands-only CPR is the gold standard now.

Dr. Pepe: If people have a reversible cause like ventricular fibrillation, often they’re already gasping, which is better than a delivered breath, by the way. Most important, then, are the compressions to make sure you have oxygen going up to the brain, because you’re still theoretically loaded with oxygen in your bloodstream if you had a sudden cardiac arrest from a ventricular fibrillation.

Your points are well taken, and we found that we had better outcomes when we just gave instructions to do compressions only, and that became the standard. Mick, you’ve had some experiences with that as well.

Dr. Molloy: If we’re going to have a long-term benefit from all this, we have to start doing this in elementary school and teaching kids basic life support and some basic health messaging.

I remember trying to get this across to a teacher one day and the teacher saying, “But why would we teach young kids to resuscitate each other?” I said, “I think you forget that the only 60-year-old person in the room is you. You train them, and we train them. They’re the ones who are going to respond and keep you alive. That’s the way you should be looking at this.” That completely changed the mindset of whether we should be doing this for the kids or not.

Dr. Pepe: In fact, what we find is that that’s exactly who gets saved. I had case after case where the kids at the school had learned CPR and saved the teachers or the administrator at the high school or elementary school. It’s a fantastic point that you bring up, Dr. Malloy.

Dr. Glatter: One other brief thing we can interject here is that the team was excellent on field in that they evaluated Damar Hamlin in a primary survey sense of ABCs (i.e., airway, breathing, and circulation) for things like a tension pneumothorax. In the sense in which he was hit, there are reversible causes. Making sure he didn’t have a tension pneumothorax that caused the arrest, in my mind, was critical.

Dr. Pepe: We do the same thing on a day-to-day basis with a car wreck, because it could be that the person had ventricular fibrillation and then had the wreck. It’s not always trauma. That’s a fantastic point that you’re making. That’s exactly what I think happened, and that’s what we do.

Dr. Glatter: Well, thank you, gentlemen. This was an informative and helpful discussion for our audience. I appreciate your time and expertise.

Dr. Glatter, is an attending physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in Hempstead, New York. He is an editorial adviser and hosts the Hot Topics in EM series on Medscape. He is also a medical contributor for Forbes.

Dr. Pepe is a professor of internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, public health, and emergency medicine at University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. He’s also a global coordinator of the U.S. Metropolitan Municipalities EMS Medical Directors (“Eagles”) Coalition.

Dr. Molloy works clinically as a consultant in emergency medicine in Wexford General Hospital, part of the Ireland East Hospital Group (IEHG). Internationally, he is a member of the Disaster Medicine Section of the European Society of Emergency Medicine (EUSEM) and has been appointed by the Irish Medical Organization (IMO) as one of two Irish delegates to serve on the European Board and Section of Emergency Medicine of the European Union of Medical Specialists (UEMS), having served for a number of years on its predecessor, the Multidisciplinary Joint Committee on Emergency Medicine.

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