January 2nd was a rough day for the sports world. People were captivated by the on-field “death” of a player. Players, coaches, fans, and staff were stunned by seeing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in real-time, maybe even for the first time. Thankfully the NFL had excellently trained teams on the sidelines prepared for these emergencies. Chest compressions were started in seconds, and spontaneous circulation returned in less than ten minutes. Damar Hamlin spent less than a week in the ICU. Much of his outcome was due to rapid response and precise execution by the educated NFL medical team on a young, healthy person that day. There is no question that the medical team deserves the credit for saving a young man’s life.
As a young resident doctor in a big major city, I, my colleagues, and all the other staff (nurses, respiratory therapists, techs, and more) see and perform CPR on a routine basis. It is part of the job. Afterward, we get right back to our usual day. Often this happens in the middle of the night. Just the other day, I was woken up at 5 a.m. to respond to a blue code call on the other side of the hospital, only hours after the last one that ended in a tragic death.
We ask every patient who comes to the hospital if they want CPR if their heart stops. Rarely do patients clearly understand this, often leading to unwanted outcomes and ICU stays. I often act it out for patients on admission (just the hand motions), so they know what I’m talking about. People need to know and have those hard conversations with families before it’s too late.
We went into these professions knowingly, and we help many people. It is hard, however, to grapple with the scarcity of what people understand about what goes on inside the modern hospital. Almost every employee in a building of almost a thousand patients knows how to do CPR. But the bystander, your neighbor, the people you pass on the sidewalk, most have no idea. And that’s because in America, we don’t teach them.
I think this is where the sports world may have dropped the ball.
The coverage on the news that week was astonishing. Every news outlet, everyone in the sports world, had all eyes on this situation. These outlets had the opportunity to use that huge audience and teach bystander CPR (and spark references from The Office). ESPN and other news outlets could have held demonstrations, brief educational moments on CPR, life as a medical professional, and more.
There could have been courses on TV throughout the week with medical professionals in attendance. We could have explained to the layperson simple steps, like calling 911, getting an AED, and starting compressions. The events surrounding Mr. Hamlin would have been the perfect opportunity to shed some light on life-saving measures. According to the American Heart Association, only 40 perent of people get the immediate help they need in an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest.
In my mind, it could have come together like this: Throughout the week, there would have been professionals on the news and sports outlets teaching short segments on how to check a pulse, find an AED, and start chest compressions. This could have been accompanied by testimonials from health care workers nationwide and some involved in Mr. Hamlin’s care. We could have galvanized the whole health care community along with boosted support for our first responders and front-line personnel.
It’s hard to be a health care worker. People in this field have felt underappreciated, which only worsened with the pandemic. You could visibly see the trauma on the faces of those football players during those moments. Now imagine you see that multiple times a week. You’re the one that pushes on the chest. You’re the one that hears the ribs break. These are things that we do daily. It makes it hard for people to go to work, and there is often insufficient time to share emotions and reflect.
So many things were done the right way. The young man’s life was saved. There were outpourings of support. The sideline crew, the hospital, and the community were shown so much love. Damar Hamlin’s case is rarely how well these situations play out, and outcomes are often much worse. However, we can swing the momentum in another direction with the right opportunity and bystander education. The success of his event is what we always strive for as part of medical care in America.
I commend Damar Hamlin on starting the #3forHeart CPR challenge. His courage to push forward and use his major platform to try and save lives creates hope in hard times. Let’s be like him and use opportunities to make a positive change.
Harrison Bell is an internal medicine resident.