What Happened to Damar Hamlin? Cardiologist Explains New Theory For His Collapse

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CINCINNATI, OHIO - JANUARY 02: Buffalo Bills players react after teammate Damar Hamlin #3 was injured against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Paycor Stadium on January 02, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin was taken to the hospital after suffering cardiac arrest and being administered CPR on the field during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 2.

The 24-year-old remains in critical condition at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center but showed “signs of improvement,” according to a statement tweeted by the Bills on Wednesday afternoon. “He is expected to remain under intensive care as his health care team continues to monitor and treat him,” the Bills reported.

But what exactly happened to Hamlin? During the first quarter at the 5:58 mark, per CBS, Hamlin was hit in the chest by Bengals receiver Tee Higgins’s helmet after Higgins caught a pass from Joe Burrow. Hamlin was initially able to get on his feet, but he then fell to the ground unconscious. Luckily the medical team arrived quickly and restored his heartbeat with CPR before taking him off the field. The NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to postpone the game.

Sudden cardiac arrest can be fatal within minutes. “The individual becomes unresponsive, with no normal breathing and no signs of circulation,” Danielle Belardo, MD, preventive cardiologist, tells POPSUGAR. About 90 percent of people who suffer out-of-hospital cardiac arrests die, according to the American Heart Association.

Cardiac arrest is different from a heart attack. Cardiac arrest is considered an electrical issue because it happens when rapid, abnormal impulses override your heart’s natural rhythm, according to Cleveland Clinic. A heart attack happens when a clogged artery disrupts blood flow and is often a common cause of cardiac arrest.

“Sudden cardiac arrest can be caused by a variety of different factors, and most often occurs in people with some form of underlying structural heart disease, most notably coronary artery disease, but other causes can be genetic, like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or acute triggers in individuals without underlying structural heart disease, such as commotio cordis,” Dr. Belardo says.

While it’s been confirmed that Hamlin went into cardiac arrest, per The New York Times, some health experts have also speculated commotio cordis because it typically involves young athletes. “Commotio cordis is a phenomenon in which a sudden blunt impact to the chest causes sudden death in the absence of cardiac damage,” Dr. Belardo says. “This can be a relatively innocent chest wall impact, which results in an arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation. Affected patients have no underlying heart disease and there is no structural damage to the chest wall, thoracic cavity, or the heart.” In short, even someone who has no pre-existing conditions, genetic, or underlying structural heart abnormalities, can have a sudden cardiac arrest after blunt force to the chest.

“Everything at this time is purely speculation,” Dr. Belardo clarifies. What is most important, she says, is that Hamlin received CPR as soon as possible. “CPR, especially if performed immediately, can double or triple a cardiac arrest victim’s chance of survival. This should reiterate the importance of anyone reading this to learn ‘hands-only CPR,’ because they could save someone’s life one day,” Dr. Belardo says.

Since Hamlin’s collapse and hospitalization, many people have taken to Twitter to share their support — regardless of team loyalty. “We are all Bills Mafia tonight, united in prayer for Damar Hamlin,” tweeted journalist Tim Kephart. ESPN reporter and host Dianna Russini tweeted, “This is so delicate and emotional for entire organizations. Several NFL head coaches have been on the phone with each other sharing ideas on how to lead their teams . . . even coaches who are facing each other in a few days.”

ESPN’s Ryan Clark, Lisa Salters, and Scott Van Pelt are being praised for their coverage of Hamlin’s critical condition. The NFL has a long history of serious injuries, but each of these reporters took the opportunity to present the humanity about what happened to Hamlin. “You realize this isn’t normal. This isn’t just football,” Clark said on “SportsCenter.” “You use the clichés ‘I’m ready to die for this,’ ‘I’m willing to give my life for this,’ sometimes we forget part of living this dream is putting your life at risk. Tonight we saw a side of football that is extremely ugly, that no one ever wants to see or admits it exists. This isn’t about a football player, this is about a human.”

Hamlin’s family have since released a statement thanking everyone for their love and support. “On behalf of our family, we want to express our sincere gratitude for the love and support shown to Damar during this challenging time,” the statement reads, as shared by friend and marketing representative Jordan Rooney. “We are deeply moved by the prayers, kind words, and donations from fans around the country.” The family also asked people to keep Hamlin in their prayers, adding that they will release updates as they have them.

Image Sources: Kirk Irwin / Stringer / Getty and Isaiah Vazquez / Contributor / Getty

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