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NFL

What happened to critically injured NFL player Damar Hamlin? A University of Maryland Medical System cardiologist explains.

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin (3) collides with Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (85) during the first half Monday in Cincinnati. Hamlin is in critical condition with an injury suffered on the play. Dr. Scott Jerome, an assistant professor of medicine and a practicing cardiologist with the University of Maryland Medical Medical System, said it appeared Hamlin suffered commotio cordis, Latin for “agitation of the heart.”

A matter of milliseconds might have been the difference between professional football player Damar Hamlin continuing on to the next play rather than collapsing and in need of lifesaving measures.

“If you get hit in the chest,” University of Maryland Medical System cardiologist Dr. Scott Jerome said, “if it happens between heartbeats in a very small window, it can put the heart in ventricular fibrillation.

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“The heart stops beating,” said Jerome, an assistant professor of medicine at the university’s school of medicine.

Hamlin, a safety for the Buffalo Bills, was in critical condition Monday night after suffering cardiac arrest in a collision with Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins. He got up but then collapsed, and as those in the stadium and a “Monday Night Football” audience watched aghast, medical personnel administered CPR and an automated external defibrillator, or AED, was used on him. He was taken by ambulance to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

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“Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest following a hit in our game versus the Bengals. His heartbeat was restored on the field and he was transferred to the UC Medical Center for further testing and treatment,” the Bills said in a statement around 2 a.m. Tuesday. “He is currently sedated and listed in critical condition.”

The Bills announced later Tuesday that the 24-year-old Hamlin spent the night in intensive care and remained in critical condition a day after his heart stopped during the opening quarter of the game.

It took the NFL about one hour after Hamlin collapsed to officially suspend the game because league executives were gathering information and communicating with referee Shawn Smith, coaches from both teams and the NFL Players Association. The NFL has not rescheduled the suspended Bills-Bengals game, and the Week 18 schedule remains unchanged, the league said Tuesday.

In a statement, Hamlin’s family expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support while asking everyone to keep the hospitalized player in their prayers. ”We are deeply moved by the prayers, kind words and donations from fans around the country,” Hamlin’s family wrote in a message posted on the Twitter account of the player’s marketing representative, Jordon Rooney. “Your generosity and compassion has meant the world to us.”

Jerome, who was not watching the game but looked at replays, said late Monday night that it appeared that Hamlin suffered commotio cordis, Latin for “agitation of the heart,” from being struck in the chest at a particular time in the heart rhythm cycle. That causes an interruption in the heart’s electrical signal and cardiac arrest.

Buffalo Bills players react as teammate Damar Hamlin is examined on the field.

“It’s a very narrow window,” Jerome said.

The phenomenon has been seen in youth baseball and in lacrosse when balls strike players in the chest, Jerome said.

On April 16, 2021, Loyola Blakefield defenseman Peter Laake was struck in the chest by a shot during a game against McDonogh and collapsed. Team staff and two doctors in the stands rushed to treat him, using an AED, before he was taken to a hospital. After a brief hospital stay and tests, he was cleared to play and this fall committed to the University of Maryland.

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Young athletes are more vulnerable compared with older professional athletes who are more capable of absorbing the blow.

“These football players, they’re beefy and have a lot to absorb the hit,” Jerome said.

Commotio cordis is rare, with fewer than 30 cases reported every year, according to an article in the National Library of Medicine. The main worry for survivors is brain damage from lack of oxygen when the heart stops pumping blood, said heart rhythm specialist Dr. Mark Link of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Doctors can help reduce that risk with deep sedation to give the brain a rest, he said.

More than 365,000 people in the U.S. have sudden cardiac arrests in non-hospital settings each year, according to the American Heart Association. Survival depends on quick CPR and shocking the heart back into a normal rhythm, as reportedly happened with Hamlin.

Jerome said the prognosis should be “pretty good” for Hamlin, given that “they have all the medical equipment on the field.”

The Associated Press and Baltimore Sun reporter Cassidy Jensen contributed to this article.


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