Can You Bounce Back From Cardiac Arrest? Experts Put Damar Hamlin’s Recovery in Context

On January 2, during a football match, Damar Hamlin, who plays as a safety for the Buffalo Bills, experienced a cardiac arrest despite being in excellent physical condition. Following a tackle, Hamlin suddenly collapsed and remained immobile. Thankfully, a nearby medical team quickly responded, providing him with immediate assistance by performing CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and using a defibrillator. This device administers an electric pulse or shock to the heart in order to restore its regular rhythm.

Thom Mayer, the Doctor of the “Heart to Heart” program on SiriusXM Radio, said that Damar Hamlin, a professional football player, will play again after his cardiac arrest recovery. However, the recovery process is a multistep one, and it has been just over a month since Hamlin’s collapse in February.

What would be required for Hamlin to achieve such an extraordinary comeback?

The cardiac electrical system experiences a malfunction resulting in cardiac arrest, which is a circulatory issue caused by an obstruction, unlike a heart attack, where all heart activity abruptly ceases.

Disruption of the normal heart rhythm, known as cardiac arrest, was suspected by many experts in the case of Hamlin. An article posted by Morehouse School of Medicine stated that the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED) and bystander CPR can greatly increase the chances of survival. This can cause permanent damage to organs, including the brain, if immediate medical attention is not provided. During cardiac arrest, the heart stops pumping blood.

“Commotio cordis is a well-described phenomenon where a traumatic impact to the chest wall transmits a force to the heart at the exact time of the electrical conduction cycle, interrupting the electrical conduction circuit and sending the heart into a lethal abnormal rhythm called ventricular fibrillation,” explains Jonathan Whiteson, MD, the medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and wellness at NYU Langone Health in New York City.

This condition causes the lower chambers of the heart, known as ventricles, to quiver instead of beating or contracting, which hinders the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.

Several factors may be related to high stress and kidney disease, elevated cholesterol levels, hypertension, diabetes, and underlying conditions that can lead to heart failure. Morehouse states that sudden death due to heart failure is rare, but black youth are more prone to it compared to white youth. Even though they may appear healthy, young competitive athletes often collapse unexpectedly, making sudden death the primary cause of cardiac arrest, as per Morehouse’s findings.

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Therapeutic hypothermia, a technique that involves cooling down the body, is used to protect the brain and other organs. In order to reduce the risk of damage by reducing the strain on the brain and allowing it to rest, patients often undergo therapeutic hypothermia. Hamlin, upon his arrival at the intensive care unit, was placed in a medically induced coma.

Hamlin’s uncle, Glenn Dorrian, informed CNN that Hamlin was placed on a ventilator in order to alleviate some of the strain on his damaged lungs.

Hamlin’s Extraordinary Healing

“Did we emerge victorious?” Penned Hamlin, as the Sporting News conveyed, when he requested a writing instrument and stationery and exhibited evident indications of recovering, four days following the cessation of his heart. Hamlin was released from Buffalo General Medical Center after undergoing a thorough medical assessment, as declared by the Bills, subsequent to spending nine days at the medical facility.

Dealing with a situation of that nature, Hamlin approached the future with caution during his appearance on Good Morning America, the day after the interview with the NFL medical director. He mentioned that he was in good physical condition but admitted to still grappling with the emotions and trauma, despite the encouraging progress he had achieved thus far.

“They [physicians] cannot truly determine since it is my decision. It is a lengthy journey and their main concern is aiding me in recovering as much as possible,” he stated in regards to resuming his football career.

The Path to Healing Following Cardiac Arrest

As per Dr. Whiteson, who had no part in Hamlin’s treatment, the process of recuperation typically spans several months, although it can vary from a few days to a period of 6 to 12 months. Hamlin, who experienced enduring cardiac injury, continued to require occasional oxygen and experienced frequent shortness of breath in the weeks following his accident.

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Whiteson states, “If the lungs and other organs are not damaged, it is not unusual for blood oxygen levels to stay within the necessary range without the need for supplemental oxygen. However, during cardiac arrest, the heart and lungs can be damaged.”

According to Mayo Clinic, medications like beta-blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, and calcium channel blockers may be prescribed to assist with the heart’s pumping function. The degree of organ damage is contingent upon the process of recuperation.

Cardiologists may suggest surgeries or alternative therapies after conducting specialized testing of the heart’s electrical system to correct rhythm issues, whereby a cardioverter-defibrillator, an implanted device placed under the patient’s skin, can reset the heart’s rhythm through the delivery of shocks.

As per Whiteson, cardiac rehabilitation usually takes place thrice a week for a duration of three months. This is a supervised, gradually advancing aerobic exercise regimen that enhances the functioning of the heart muscle and aids in diminishing the likelihood of additional irregular heart rhythms. It is crucial for patients to engage in cardiac rehabilitation as they recuperate.

In addition to the physical recovery, a patient like Hamlin may require assistance in dealing emotionally with the trauma of the ordeal.

In Denver, Comilla Sasson, MD, PhD, an emergency physician with Colorado Permanente Medical Group and vice president of emergency cardiovascular care science and innovation at the American Heart Association, suggests that individuals in such situations could potentially develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which may benefit from counseling. This can be particularly relevant for individuals who have a sense of feeling as though they have passed away.

Identifying the Symptoms of Cardiac Arrest and Responding Promptly

Bradley Knight, MD, the director of cardiac electrophysiology at Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute in Chicago, urges the public to recognize signs of cardiac arrest.

According to Dr. Knight, who was not involved in Hamlin’s treatment, “The presumption should be that if they recently suffered a blow, they are experiencing cardiac arrest.” While individuals often faint or lose consciousness due to various reasons, it is crucial not to jump to conclusions and assume that a person is having a seizure or has fainted when they collapse and become unresponsive.

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If an individual collapses and you have access to an automated external defibrillator (AED) called a defibrillator, it is advised by Mayo Clinic to check if the person has a pulse and is breathing before administering CPR. The first step in helping a person who has collapsed is to determine if they have a pulse and are breathing, then immediately call 911.

Dr. Sasson, who was not involved in Hamlin’s care, states that individuals who do not receive early CPR and early defibrillation, early activation of 911, and prompt transportation to the emergency department are unlikely to survive sudden cardiac arrest.

She emphasizes that people without any medical training or who have not taken a CPR course can still initiate these lifesaving procedures.

Sasson explains, “When you begin chest compressions, you are essentially imitating the heart.” The American Heart Association offers guidance on the basic principles of performing CPR and utilizing an AED. Hamlin, in collaboration with the Heart Association, has joined forces to advocate for the CPR method that rescued him from a life-threatening situation.

Sasson explains, “It stimulates you and instructs you precisely on what to execute.” She further states that individuals should not feel daunted when it comes to utilizing an AED for the initial occurrence. “An AED is designed for any individual, quite literally from the pavement, to grasp it and employ it.”

Although Hamlin’s cardiac arrest was frightening, Knight notes that it has raised awareness about the important health threat posed to athletes.

He says that the NFL has focused little attention on protecting against concussion but has paid attention to protecting against cardiac arrest by using helmets.

Knight says, “In the NFL, they need to better evaluate and reevaluate their protective gear, hopefully ensuring that Hamlin clearly didn’t have enough protection.” “All the pads, especially the hip pads and shoulder pads, seem much smaller and streamlined than the bulky protective gear they had in the last few years. I feel like they are being used more efficiently.”

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