When Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the reason was unknown. What was clear was that Hamlin’s heart had stopped beating.
The game between the AFC North and AFC East division leaders was quickly abandoned as players, staff, and thousands of spectators watched the 6-foot-tall Hamlin lose consciousness and fall backward at the field’s 50-yard line.
“The entire Bills team is out on the field right now,” said an ESPN correspondent as they waited for news on Hamlin’s condition. “Several players are down on their knees, others are holding hands, praying. You can just see the worried looks on their faces.”
Medical personnel present at the stadium confirmed Hamlin had suffered a cardiac arrest and proceeded to administer CPR for over 9 minutes while ambulances arrived.
“I thought it was going to be another one of these horrific shots that we see every [once in a while], said an MSNBC reporter. “But the hit was the kind of hit that we see 100 times every weekend in the NFL, so there was nothing particularly different about that tackle.”
Hamlin’s heart started again on the field, according to medical personnel, and was taken to a level one trauma center at the University of Cincinnati medical center.
The official cause of the cardiac arrest is still unclear, but some doctors believe Hamlin could have suffered from a condition more common in sports like baseball and hockey: commotio cordis.
The condition is an often lethal disruption of heart rhythm that occurs as a result of a blow to the area directly over the heart (the precordial region) at a critical time during the cycle of a heartbeat. This leads to commotio cordis by disrupting the normal heart electrical activity, followed instantly by ventricular fibrillation and complete disorganization of the heart’s pumping function.
His collapse led some to draw comparisons to ex-Flyer defender Chris Progner who suffered from a cardiac arrest after getting hit by the puck during Game 2 of the 1998 Stanley Cup. Progner was unconscious for less than a minute due to commotio cordis.
William Gray, a Philadelphia-area cardiologist, said it is possible that the impact of the tackle caused Hamlin’s cardiac arrest.
While commotio cordis is a relatively rare occurence, it is the second most common cause of cardiac death among U.S. athletes, according to a 2009 study in Sports Health.
Hamlin was sedated and listed in critical condition as of Tuesday afternoon, according to CBS News, but several doctors have weighed in with optimistic remarks, citing the immediate medical attention Hamlin received as potentially life-saving.
As Hamlin recovers, the high-profile incident could become a catalyst that raises awareness of commotio cordis and leads to more effective treatment.