It was a scene that shocked players and fans alike when Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin, 24, collapsed in the first quarter of a game in Cincinnati on Monday.
Something was very wrong with his heart. Medical staff reportedly used CPR and a defibrillator to restore his heartbeat, before transferring him to a local hospital, where he remains sedated and in critical condition, fighting for his life.
Cardiac specialists say it’s too early to tell what went wrong, but a rare type of trauma called commotio cordis, also known as a concussion, is among the possible culprits. It is a type of arrhythmia, when the heart cannot work effectively and blood pressure can drop drastically.
Some doctors believe that Hamlin’s tackle on Bengals receiver Tee Higgins hitting just the right spot on Hamlin’s chest moments earlier could have caused the problem.
A blow to the chest with enough speed and power, “at the exact moment in the cardiac cycle,” can trigger an arrhythmia, said Dr. Christopher Labos, a cardiologist in Montreal.
Commotio cordis is “extremely rare,” Labos told CBC News, because the heart is vulnerable to it for mere milliseconds.
But, “when you have a young, otherwise healthy player who collapses without a heartbeat from a blow to the chest, there really is a diagnosis that comes to mind.”
The fact that Hamlin’s heart rhythm was restored with a defibrillator reportedly “further confirms that that’s what happened,” he said.
Commotio cordis occurs “probably 20 times a year” in the US, and about 60 percent of those affected survive, according to heart rhythm specialist Dr. Mark Link of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
In 1998, a puck struck NHLer Chris Pronger in the chest during a Stanley Cup playoff game, when the St. Louis player was 23, and suffered commotio cordis.
On Tuesday, he tweeted his support for Hamlin “during this incredibly scary time.”
Prayers that Damar Hamlin may have the same outcome that I was lucky to have with my incident. Our thoughts and prayers are with Damar, his family, his teammates, and the greater NFL community during this incredibly scary time. 🙏🏻 https://t.co/u90LBw5MfO
Pronger told CBC News that taking the hit caused his heart to skip a beat, enough to limit oxygen to the brain “in that beat” and he passed out.
He was able to continue his career, playing for over a decade after recovering.
The main concern for survivors is brain damage from oxygen starvation when the heart stops pumping blood, Link said. Doctors can help reduce that risk with deep sedation to rest the brain, he said.
For every minute delay in resuscitating someone with the condition, there is a 10 percent increase in mortality, Dr. David Angus told the television show. CBS Mornings on Tuesday.
Hamlin was down for 19 minutes while receiving medical attention.
Sportswriter Matt Parrino, who has covered the Bills since 2018, and before that the UFC, has seen all kinds of injuries. But what he saw on Monday “was something different.”
“There was an urgency from all parties involved” after Hamlin collapsed, he said.
“I think I saw an EMT out in the field who had a walkie-talkie of some sort, trying to get more people out, before the ambulance arrived.
“And the look on her face, as she looked at Damar Hamlin and then back at the walkie-talkie as she yelled out instructions, there was a level of speed and urgency to the whole situation.”
The Bills said early Tuesday that Hamlin went into cardiac arrest after the tackle.
“His heart rhythm was restored in the field and he was transported to the UC Medical Center for further testing and treatment,” the team said in a statement.
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