The sports world was shocked Monday night when Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin, 24, collapsed on the field after being tackled by Tee Higgins of the Cincinnati Bengals. Higgins collided into Hamlin’s chest right where his heart would be.
Hamlin got up shortly after getting hit and took a few steps before falling back down. The medical team on staff quickly rushed to his side and used a defibrillator to get his heart working again. Authorities said Hamlin suffered from cardiac arrest and was then transferred to a local hospital where he remains in critical condition.
But experts still aren’t sure what exactly caused Hamlin’s heart to stop beating. Dr. David Agus told CBS News that the blunt force trauma may have occurred at exactly the right time in exactly the right spot to disrupt his heartbeat, a condition known as commotio cordis. This may have caused his heart to have an arrhythmia, which means it “cannot beat effectively to push blood to the brain.”
Agnes believes Hamlin’s heart may have been in ventricular fibrillation.
“What we know with commotio cordis that every minute you delay shocking them, resuscitating them, what happens is there’s an increase of 10% in mortality,” Agus said. “They started CPR right away, which is great. My hope is they were able to restore the heart rate soon enough to be able to get blood flow to the brain so there’s no damage there.”
He estimates that around 30 cases of this rare condition are found in the U.S. every year, primarily in children who roughhouse or play sports that require physical contact.
“It happens in Little League baseball. A ball is thrown by a pitcher and hits the person in the chest,” Agus said. “It happens in soccer where there’s something that causes that blunt force trauma. So, remarkably rare.”
Gregory Marcus, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, explained that the condition occurs when the chest is hit at a very specific moment of the heartbeat, in a 40-millisecond window.
Marcus said while it is impossible to diagnose Hamlin without looking at his medical records, it’s possible that he was suffering from an underlying medical condition that went unnoticed.
Thankfully, the medical crew was able to get Hamlin’s heart beating again on the field within a matter of seconds. Without their quick thinking, he may not be alive today.
Brien Barnewolt, an emergency-room doctor at Tufts Medical Center, also cited commotio cordis as a possible cause. He commended the emergency medical crew for preventing additional damage.
“I think the important thing is the quality of CPR and the timing of any kind of resuscitative efforts or defibrillation efforts that occur,” he told a local news outlet. “The sooner the better, obviously. People have been known to have great outcomes, even with prolonged cardiac arrest, if the resuscitative efforts are of high quality.”
A representative for the Buffalo Bills confirmed that Hamlin had been transferred to the UC Medical Center and remains stable.
The team is expected to release more information about his condition in the coming days. “We are going to know a lot over the next 12 to 24 hours as they start to turn down the machine that’s breathing for him, the ventilator, to see if he can breathe on his own, and our hopes and prayers are that he can,” Agus said.
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