When 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field from cardiac arrest during the January 2 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, millions of people witnessed a remarkable resuscitation in real time on live television.
As a trauma neurosurgeon myself, I was in awe of the dozens of medical professionals – athletic trainers, doctors and EMTs – who put their years of training into action within seconds. The immediate recognition that this wasn’t a routine injury and the speedy administration of CPR and defibrillation saved his heart, his brain and his life. Six weeks later, we now hear Dr. Thomas Mayer, the medical director of the NFL Players Association, say “I guarantee you that Damar Hamlin will play professional football again.”
The rescue response was awesome to watch and reflected the remarkable resources and planning that go into every game played in the NFL. As a parent, though, I couldn’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if Hamlin faced this when he was still in high school. What if it would’ve happened to any of my three teenage kids at their school? Would they have been saved as well?
Sudden cardiac deaths are rare in young people, but you may be surprised to know that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are about 2,000 such deaths in people under the age of 25 every year.
While the overall number of cardiac arrests has stayed largely consistent, there is no question that school safety efforts – and cardiac arrest survival rates – have improved over the years. Florida was the first state to enact laws requiring automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, in schools in 1999, and there are now 20 states, along with the District of Columbia, with similar mandates, according to the American College of Cardiology. Even in most of the states with no requirement on the books, AEDs are available in the majority of schools.
Most venues with more than 200 people – large businesses, stadiums, casinos and concert halls – are required to have AEDs as well, but there has been a major focus on schools in recent decades, considering that about 20% of the US population is on school grounds at any one time. In the past quarter-century, we went from hardly any AEDs being present in schools to a remarkable awareness of the lifesaving potential they hold. That increased awareness and attention to defibrillators and CPR has directly resulted in more athletes surviving, says Dr. Jonathan Drezner, director of the University of Washington Medicine Center for Sports Cardiology and team physician for the Seattle Seahawks.