January 24, 2023
Watching Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapse on the field and paramedics rush out to save him was the most reality-wrenching and eerily still moment I’ve viewed on a live sports broadcast. I can’t imagine how it felt for those actually in attendance, the players on the field and Hamlin’s loved ones.
I would’ve sent my sympathies to the NFL and ESPN, but they were busy using the extra air breaks to hit their Burger King commercial quota.
Unfortunately, none of the chicken, chicken, chicken or chicken was enough of a distraction and Roger Goodell began to panic when he realized people were still worried about Hamlin when they came back from commercial. Down to his last option, Goodell turned to sympathy. He realized Stefon Diggs would need at most 15 minutes after seeing his friend nearly die before he’d go run another deep post.
After 15 and 20 minutes pass without him moving and hearing word that his heart stopped, there’s no reasonable excuse for the NFL attempting to continue that game. Rescheduling an NFL game is hard, but not nearly as hard as Bills and Bengals players continuing to play while being unaware of Hamlin’s health. In a year where the league also mishandled Tua Tagovailoa’s concussions, it’s only more example of the continued ineptitude in addressing injuries from the league.
It is excellent and reassuring news to hear that Hamlin has been discharged from the New York hospital he was transferred to from Cincinnati and is back home in Buffalo. There have yet to be any certain reports about what Hamlin suffered from other than it being cardiac arrest, but many medical professionals have weighed in and suspect commotio cordis as the reason for Hamlin’s sudden heart stoppage.
This arrhythmic phenomenon occurs most often with a noticeable impact to the left side of someone’s chest during a 20-40 millisecond window of the heartbeat cycle (the beginning of what’s called the T-wave). The contact to the chest does not always need to be substantially violent or powerful, either. Perhaps this is the most concerning aspect of the phenomenon: It is just a matter of very unfortunate and unpredictable timing.
That’s not to say that any hit to the chest during this already very brief window will cause cardiac arrest, and as I said, there are no confirmed reports saying this is what Damar Hamlin suffered. However, there is enough context to guess this as a cause. Now with the term commotio cordis circling around the Hamlin emergency, it is a topic that should be further discussed in the world of sports safety.
A study published by the American Heart Association in 2012 — which used the National Commotio Cordis Registry — found that the majority of those who suffer from the phenomenon are male athletes under the age of 16 — specifically those playing sports that include projectiles (baseballs, pucks, etc.). Though, many of the recorded cases in the study showed instances with older patients or cases unrelated to sports. The study also points out that nearly all collected cases of commotio cordis were that of male victims.
While the study attributed this pattern to men predominately playing in “projectile sports,” it warns of female athletes still being susceptible to commotio cordis given similar circumstances of injury. With female youth and high school sports on a steady rise in participation in recent decades, I fear that if measures to prevent commotio cordis are solely focused on male athletes, tragedy can occur for girls’ youth sports more frequently.
Some of those measures to prevent this syndrome are being implemented in sports at all levels recently, even before the Hamlin incident. Lacrosse is one such projectile sport where commotio cordis has been observed occurring more often, and I happen to have a younger brother with experience in new lacrosse padding aimed to help prevent this syndrome.
“They’re basically just bigger pads on top of the chest protector. It’s annoying, but I know it keeps me safe,” first-year Ronan Iverson said about the chest protective gear he wears to lacrosse games. Those pads are certified by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment and have only been required for all outfield players recently. “They were made before then, but that was the first year officials said we had to wear them,” Iverson said (the younger one).
“Most chest protectors came with a velcro option to have an extra heart protector, but everyone would just rip them out and not use them until they were required,” first-year UO lacrosse player Aaron McCoy said. McCoy continued with his experience observing goalies in lacrosse: “You’re taking a lot more shots in practice, and there’s probably not a trainer as on-alert as they would be in a game, so what’s probably even more dangerous is practicing without an AED [nearby].”
Realistically, it is difficult to expect every club sport practice to have an automated external defibrillator (AED) nearby at all times. Though thankfully, there are over 120 AEDs scattered around campus, and anyone participating in sports on or near campus should be made aware of their closest location in case of emergency.
There are other measures past physical protection and AED awareness I highly recommend athletes take preseason, especially those in high-risk sports like baseball and softball. Getting regular heart screenings and check-ups from health professionals to search for predispositions to sudden cardiac arrest needs to be more normalized for any athlete. It is a very rare and often unpredictable occurrence, but one with too strong of a loss if not prepared.