The media have been focused on the tragic collapse of Damar Hamlin, a professional football player, during a televised game last Monday. Hopefully it will bring more attention to this huge problem: some 350,000 sudden deaths occur annually in the United States, though it is rare for it to happen in a fit athlete.
This was not a “heart attack,” the lay term for what health professionals call an acute myocardial infarction. An acute MI typically happens to an older person who has (sometimes unknown!) narrowing of the coronary arteries and is generally felt as chest tightness rather than sudden collapse, though this can occur. It would be very rare for a fit young athlete to have coronary disease. While possible, this is unlikely to have happened to Damar.
Nor was it “heart failure,” a condition in which the heart, because of weakened muscle, cannot adequately pump blood and which usually comes on very gradually and whose cardinal symptoms are tiredness and shortness of breath due to fluid backing up in the lungs.
This was a sudden cardiac arrest, in which the coordinated electrical activity that regulates the heart becomes totally uncoordinated. The ventricles, the main pumping chambers of the heart, no longer contract rhythmically. Instead, they quiver in a totally uncoordinated manner, and there is NO effective pumping of blood. This is called VF: ventricular fibrillation. The first organ to feel the lack of blood is the brain, and hence the sudden collapse.
While the commonest cause of this in the general population is coronary disease, in young people there are commoner causes. Bostonians with a long memory will recall the tragic death of Reggie Lewis, star player with the Boston Celtics, who collapsed and died during a practice in 1993.
One possible cause of VF in a healthy person is a blow to the chest which happens to occur at just the wrong time in the heart’s electrical cycle. This is called Commotio Cordis. It tends to be more common in younger males, possibly because their chests are less muscular and a blow is more easily transmitted to the heart. It has been seen in lacrosse or hockey players getting a stick in the chest and baseball players struck in the chest by a ball. This could have caused Damar's collapse.
Another cause is a cardiomyopathy, an abnormality, often congenital, of the heart muscle. If this is very localized, the athlete may be able to perform at a high level but still be prone to VF.
A specific form of cardiomyopathy, that may have been the cause of Reggie Lewis’ sudden death, is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy: the heart is too thick and during exertion there may be severe obstruction of blood flow out of the left ventricle.
The good news is that Damar appears to have been successfully resuscitated and with luck will come out of this tragedy with minimal damage. If so, he will owe his life to the prompt recognition of what had happened, prompt administration of CPR and prompt use of an AED: automatic external defibrillator. This last is a device that allows the general public to give a life-saving electric shock to stop VF without having to wait for medical personnel to arrive on the scene.
Time is critical: the brain suffers irreversible damage if resuscitation is delayed, even if heart function can be restored.
Learn CPR. If you have any influence, see that any place where groups gather has an AED and personnel trained in its use.
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