How Coverage of Damar Hamlin's Cardiac Arrest and CPR Could Go On to Save Countless Lives

Doctors are urging more people to learn life-saving CPR following Monday night's scene.

photograph of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin in uniform

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  • Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed after a hit on Monday, and suffered a cardiac arrest that required CPR on the field for about 9 minutes.
  • The scene may have been many people's first time seeing CPR happen in real life, experts said, which could explain why many people online expressed concerns or confusion about the care Hamlin received.
  • Though Hamlin's case is tragic, it can serve as a reminder for everyone to get CPR certified—or at least learn how to do chest compressions—so that they can save a life if they ever witness a cardiac arrest.

On Monday night, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest following a hit during a game against the Cincinatti Bengals.

Before being rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, fans watched as 24-year-old Hamlin received CPR on the field for about nine minutes. In the live taping, ESPN sports broadcasters called the scene and resuscitation efforts on Hamlin "chilling and scary," and noted that first responders were "intensely working on" Hamlin and "frantically administering CPR."

The tense scene that was broadcast during Monday Night Football and shared widely on social media has since sparked conversation about the importance of CPR, especially as many online expressed their questions and fears over seeing Hamlin receive CPR.

Though it may have been a shocking scene for many to witness, the CPR care given to Hamlin was executed correctly and quickly—and it saved his life.

“This same type of event happens [about] 400,000 times in the United States every year,” Jason Bartos, MD, PhD, associate director of the center for resuscitation medicine at the University of Minnesota, told Health. “So in this case, actually, what we see is the best case scenario, where the cardiac arrest is witnessed—in this case by millions of people on television—and the person who has that cardiac arrest has immediate bystander CPR by trained professionals who are on the scene.”

As of late Thursday morning, the Buffalo Bills said that Hamlin "has shown remarkable improvement over the past 24 hours," he seems "neurologically intact," and his lungs are healing—he is still "critically ill," however.

Here’s what we know about Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, why CPR can oftentimes be hard on the body, and why it’s so important to take the time to learn about this life-saving skill. 

How CPR Works

When a person goes into cardiac arrest—as is what happened to Hamlin—their heart stops beating or beats inefficiently, and they can no longer get blood to vital organs, such as the brain and lungs. CPR, known formally as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, is a technique that helps move blood around a person’s body while their heart isn’t working correctly.

“You're actually taking over the pumping mechanism in the heart, because the heart is right underneath the sternum," Holly Andersen, MD, attending cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center, told Health. "You're actually restoring blood flow to the brain and the heart while you're waiting, typically, for EMS to arrive."

Though it’s not yet clear what caused Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, NFL medical personnel administered care and were able to restore his heartbeat after it had stopped on the field, thanks to CPR and the use of an AED.

An automated external defibrillator, or AED, is a machine that can send a shock to the heart to reestablish its proper rhythm, if necessary.

CPR is usually administered by someone who’s American Red Cross CPR certified, which means they’ve completed training for the specific steps involved in the technique—that can be a trained medical professional, an average person who’s been certified, or just someone who has knowledge about what CPR entails.

“Basically, you have your arms out straight, you interlock your fingers, you use the palm of your hands, you lean over the victim, and you push hard and fast in the center of the chest,” said Dr. Andersen. “You push their sternum down two inches, and you're trying to do that [for] two compressions per second.”

CPR typically consists of 30 of these chest compressions, followed by two rescue breaths given mouth-to-mouth. However, Dr. Andersen explained, in cases where bystanders happen upon someone who’s going into cardiac arrest, simply doing 100–120 chest compressions per minute should be enough to help oxygenated blood move around the body and potentially save their life.

When Done Correctly, CPR Can Be Difficult to Witness

Though CPR can double or triple a person’s chance of survival if given right after cardiac arrest, the technique can be jarring. It's possible that Hamlin’s CPR was the first ever witnessed by many Americans, Dr. Bartos said, which explains why many may have felt shocked or confused.

“It took the general public seeing a 24-year-old man code, go into total asystole on a football field, in the middle of an NFL game, for people to realize that resuscitation is traumatic,” TikToker JennaK said in a video now viewed nearly 2.5 million times.

“Despite there being a number of medical TV shows, and medical cases in movies and in the media, those things are just a depiction of what actually happens,” Richina Bicette-McCain, MD, medical director and emergency medicine physician at the Baylor College of Medicine, told Health. “It actually is a pretty gruesome procedure and can be very traumatic to watch for people who are not in the medical field.”

CPR, when done correctly, can seem intense or extreme to those that have little experience with it. Oftentimes, if a person who is not a trained medical professional has to do CPR, they don’t compress the chest forcefully enough, Chris Hogrefe, MD, clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, told Health. The people who gave CPR to Hamlin were certainly not trying to hurt him, though watching the process may have seemed almost "barbaric," he said.

"The fact of the matter is CPR is something where ribs break, and bruises happen," said Dr. Hogrefe. "Those things are not uncommon with CPR, particularly in a hospital setting."

He added that, in muscular people or people with bigger bodies, it can be especially hard to move the chest enough for compressions. "Really what they're trying to do is to get that heart to beat the way that it would without that assistance," he said. "And it’s necessary so that you can restore oxygen to the tissues that really need it.” 

There’s also the possibility that AEDs can give small injuries to the heart as well, Dr. Bartos added, though for that life-saving machine too, “it’s very much with that risk,” he said.

A Stark Reminder of the Importance of CPR Training

As alarming and horrific as Hamlin’s cardiac arrest was, experts agree that the budding online discourse about the importance of CPR may be somewhat of a silver lining.

The reason that Hamlin has a chance at recovery is because a huge amount of people witnessed his collapse, and he received CPR and an AED very quickly after his cardiac arrest, Dr. Bicette-McCain explained. But for the average person, that is rarely the case.

“The time-to-CPR is the number one best indicator in terms of what a person’s potential recovery could be from a cardiac arrest,” she said. “So it’s absolutely important that everyone learns CPR.”

People can access CPR certifications through the American Red Cross, which can take place either in person or online. If someone has been certified in the past, it’s also possible to take a refresher course and get re-certified.

If taking a course is inaccessible though, Dr. Andersen explained that just doing a bit of research on your own may be enough to get you through a crisis situation. 

“Right now, 360,000 Americans die out of the hospital from sudden cardiac arrest, and 92% die before making it to the hospital, because people don't know what to do. And what to do is so simple,” said Dr. Andersen. 

She and her colleagues at NewYork-Presbyterian have a 30-second video called Hands Only CPR that walks a person through a situation where someone has potentially gone into cardiac arrest. The steps are simple, Dr. Andersen explained: check to see if someone is responsive, call 911, and then compress the chest until medical personnel arrive. There’s even an accompanying Spotify playlist that features songs that will help a person give enough chest compressions per minute.

Though not every person can have access to NFL-caliber medical staff in case of an emergency, CPR is a simple-enough technique that can be incredibly useful when freak accidents like Hamlin’s happen. 

“Something good can actually come out of this event, in that future events and future patients that have a cardiac arrest would have better care and better chance of surviving,” said Dr. Bartos. “This should be [a] reminder to everybody that part of our citizenship and our neighborliness with our fellow citizens is to be CPR ready.”

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  1. American Heart Association. What is cardiac arrest?.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three things you may not know about CPR.

  3. USA Today. Damar Hamlin was treated with AED and CPR after cardiac arrest: emergency response, explained.

  4. American Red Cross. What is AED?.

  5. American Red Cross. CPR steps.

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