COMMENTARY

Five Thoughts on the Damar Hamlin Collapse

John Mandrola, MD

Disclosures

January 05, 2023

The obvious first statement is that it's neither wise nor appropriate to speculate on the specifics of Damar Hamlin's cardiac event during a football game Monday night (including the possibility of commotio cordis) or his ongoing care. The public nature of his collapse induces intense curiosity but people with illness deserve privacy. Privacy in healthcare is in short supply. I disagree strongly with those who say his doctors ought to be giving public updates. That's up to the family.

But there are important general concepts to consider about this incident. These include…

Cardiac Arrest Can Happen to Anyone

People with structural heart disease or other chronic illnesses have a higher risk of arrhythmia, but the notion that athletes are immune from cardiac arrest is wrong. This sentence almost seems too obvious to write, but to this day, I hear clinicians express surprise that an athletic person has heart disease.

Survival Turns on Rapid and Effective Intervention

In the old days of electrophysiology, we used to test implantable cardioverter-defibrillators during an implant procedure by inducing ventricular fibrillation (VF) and watching the device convert it. Thankfully, trials have shown that this is no longer necessary for most implants.

When you induce VF In the EP lab, you learn quickly that a) it causes loss of consciousness in a matter of seconds, b) rapid defibrillation restores consciousness, often without the patient knowing or remembering they passed out, and c) the failure of the shock to terminate VF results in deterioration in a matter of 1-2 minutes. Even one minute in VF feels so long.

Need Is an Appropriate Word in VF Treatment

Clinicians often use the verb need. As in, this patient needs this pill or this procedure. It's rarely appropriate.

But in the case of treating VF, patients truly need rapid defibrillation. Survival of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is low because there just aren't enough automated external defibrillator (AEDs) or people trained to use them. A study of patients who had out-of-hospital cardiac arrest in Denmark found that 30-day survival almost doubled (28.8% vs 16.4%), when the nearest AED was accessible.

Bystanders Must Act

The public messages are simple: If a person loses consciousness in front of you, and is not breathing normally, assume it is a cardiac arrest, call 911 to get professional help, and start hands-only chest compressions. Don't spend time checking for a pulse or trying to wake the person. If this is not a cardiac arrest, they will soon tell you to stop compressing their chest. Seconds matter.

Chest compressions are important but what is really needed is defibrillation. A crucial step in CPR is to send someone to get an AED and get the pads attached. If this is a shockable rhythm, deliver the shock.  Hamlin's collapse emphasizes the importance of the AED; without it, his survival to the hospital would have been unlikely.

Widespread Pre-participation Screening of Young Athletes Remains a Bad Idea

Whenever cardiac arrest occurs in an athlete, in such a public way, people think about prevention. Surely it is better to prevent such an event than react to it, goes the thinking. The argument against this idea has four prongs:

The incidence of cardiac disease in a young athlete is extremely low, which sets up a situation where most "positive" tests are false positive. A false positive screening ECG or echocardiogram can create harm in multiple ways. One is the risk from downstream procedures, but worse is the inappropriate disqualification from sport. Healthwise, few harms could be greater than creating long-term fear of exercise in someone.

There is also the problem of false-negative screening tests. An ECG may be normal in the setting of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. And a normal echocardiogram does not exclude arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy or other genetic causes of cardiac arrest. In a 2018 study from a major sports cardiology center in London, 6 of the 8 sudden cardiac deaths in their series were in athletes who had no detectable abnormalities on screening.

Even when disease is found, it's not clear that prohibiting participation in sports prevents sudden death. Many previous Class III recommendations against participation in sport now carry Class II — may be considered — designations.

Finally, screening for any disease loses value as treatments improve. Public education regarding rapid intervention with CPR and AED use is the best treatment option. A great example is the case of Christian Erikson, a Danish soccer player who suffered cardiac arrest during a match at the European Championships in 2021 and was rapidly defibrillated on the field. Therapy was so effective that he was conscious and able to wave to fans on his way out of the stadium. He has now returned to elite competition.

Proponents of screening might oppose my take by saying that National Football League players are intensely screened. But this is different from widespread screening of high school and college athletes. It might sound harsh to say, but professional teams have dualities of interests in the health of their athletes given the million-dollar contracts.

What's more, professional teams can afford to hire expert cardiologists to perform the testing. This would likely reduce the rate of false-positive findings compared to screening in the community setting. I often have young people referred to me because of asymptomatic bradycardia found during athletic screening — an obviously normal finding.

Conclusions

As long as there are sports, there will be athletes who suffer cardiac arrest.

We can both hope for Hamlin's full recovery and learn lessons to help reduce the rate of death from out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. This mostly involves education on how to help fellow humans and a public health commitment to access to AEDs.

John Mandrola, MD, practices cardiac electrophysiology in Louisville, Kentucky and is a writer and podcaster for Medscape. He espouses a conservative approach to medical practice. He participates in clinical research and writes often about the state of medical evidence. 

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