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CHICAGO – On January 2nd, 2023, during a Monday Night Football broadcast watched by 23.8 million people, Buffalo Bills Safety Damar Hamlin, completed an apparently routine tackle – before collapsing on the field, having suffered a cardiac arrest.

Medical personnel worked for nearly 20 minutes on the field to resuscitate him before eventually restoring his heartbeat and transferring him to University of Cincinnati Medical Center, recover from a testosterone cycle where he spent days in critical condition in the ICU and the weeks after in slow recovery.

Barley 100 days later, Hamlin strode onstage at HIMSS23 with Dr. Ryan Earnest, acute critical care surgeon at UC Health.

“We talk about medical outcomes,” said panel moderator Mark Sugrue, RN, managing Director at FTI Consulting and HIMSS board member. “Well, here’s your medical outcome!”

During their discussion. Hamlin and Earnest discussed the near-death medical emergency and Hamlin described how the incident and his recovery has impacted his life – and offered some unexpected opportunities, particularly around his new national campaign to promote CPR training.

Sugrue note that on average, there’s about 30 medical personnel at a given NFL matchup, and the league requires them to huddle before each game – an hour-long discussion to coordinate with teams and prep for any medical potentialities. 

Before his incident, Hamlin didn’t realize those protocols were even in place.

“I only learned afterwards that two hours before we’re even out there on the field, they’re going through every situation of what can happen, what could possibly go wrong, and what are the chances of something actually being as severe as my situation,” he said.

“But that’s why proper preparation, it gives proper performance. I’m thankful that they took the time out to make sure that they’re taking care of us.”

Since his recovery, Hamlin has leapt into advocacy work around CPR education and wider AED access, the tools that saved his life.

“I’ve been doing a lot of keeping up with the American Heart Association, traveling the world and just trying to make my impact there and affect everyone,” he said. “I want to [promote] CPR for all of the youth football leagues and all the places in my hometown of Pittsburgh, and maybe in the Cincinnati and Buffalo areas.

“We were in a great situation with Damar,” having skilled medical personnel and lifesaving equipment at the ready to help resuscitate him,” said Earnest. “He’s trying to give people the same opportunity to access that he had. Access is something that we as providers want everyone to have. Of course, we want to treat everyone. We want to give everyone the opportunity to have care – but there’s always challenges with that.”

“What I’ve learned a little bit from watching Damar these past couple of months is the influence that an individual can have in his own sphere, whatever that is. We can’t discount the impact each of us can have as individuals. Each of us are in different situations, but don’t discount our own individual spheres of influence.”

Hamlin said he felt “blessed” for the immediate lifesaving attention on the field, the leading-edge clinical care he received at UC Health, the emotional support he received from the Buffalo Bills, other NFL players and fans around the world and, of course, “my immediate family, my mom, my dad, my brother.”

During his recovery, he was in the “best position,” he said. “The only thing I had to worry about was getting healthy, focusing on breathing, and I had a clear mind of the whole process because of my family and my team. So I’m just indebted.”

“Care involves more than just the medical side of things,” said Earnest. “It involves the support system, the emotions that are involved not just in the patients themselves, but everyone around them. And of course, with healthcare information, there’s so many different aspects of it. People can pull up their chart online very easily personally, and their family can too.

He added: “People need to be able to have their information, but we also need to make sure we inform them about what that information means.”

“Everyone who was a part of my care team was making a point to make sure I understood everything that was going on and that I knew exactly what I was going to do for each test, what testing was doing,” said Hamlin.

So now he’s paying it forward with his advocacy and charity.

“I’m putting that in the work. And also with my foundation as well. Trying to make an impact and let kids that come from places like me or, just give them that even playing field of all kids so that they don’t feel limited to just their environment.”

And now – since he was officially medically cleared to resume football activities, just this week – he’s got a new goal to work toward.

“I’m just focused on the discipline of what it takes, what it takes to win a Super Bowl. I’m just doing those things daily. No matter how I’m feeling, I’m not riding the roller coaster of emotions. I’m just focused on getting things done. I know it’s a journey, but I’m committed to it.”

As a safety in the NFL, you must always be focusing on improving, he said, you can’t stay flat.

“You can’t. You lose your spot that quick. And that’s a big part of the reason why in a little over three months, I got cleared and I’m getting right back to what I do. Because it takes so much to be great in this field, and it takes a lot of work. It’s a scary process. It’s an anxious process, but my heart is in it. I’m committed to it.

“I have to do the work,” he said. “You can’t skip the work. I’m doing the work right now, and we’ve all got to keep doing the work. It’s hard. But you have to keep at it.”

Mike Miliard is executive editor of Healthcare IT News
Email the writer: [email protected]

Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS publication.

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