Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

It’s About The Human, Not The Game

This morning, many of us, are getting an unexpected anatomy lesson of the heart. Though the catalyst occurred as an injury during a professional football game, the discussion around most breakfast tables and office water coolers is much more consuming.

Last night, the Cincinnati Bengals hosted the Buffalo Bills, in what was considered an unofficial “playoff game” with the end results affecting playoff positions for each team. In what looked like a normal tackle that football fans had seen thousands of times before, would soon become an event that no one would ever forget. Upon completing the textbook tackle, Bills Safety Damar Hamlin got up, as if to prepare for the next play, and suddenly fell backwards, unconscious. Hamlin is just twenty-four years old. And I use the verb tense “is”, because although reports claimed he went into cardiac arrest following that tackle, and needed CPR, and was revived on the field of play, he is currently being treated, in critical care. Everyone is concerned for this young man, and hopefully his full recovery.

Young man. Heart issue. Where have I heard these two phrases together before? Oh, that’s right, as I laid on an operating table at the age of 42, preparing for emergency bypass surgery for a fatal condition I was unaware I had, caused by treatments for my Hodgkin’s Lymphoma eighteen years prior. Since 2008, I have had two more additional heart surgeries, and will likely undergo more in the future. My purpose for stating this is not to say I am an expert, as I am not, is not to compare the situations, as they are not similar, but to say, I understand what is being explained as to what happened to this young football player.

Again, the play itself looked fairly routine, even if a bit more high energy, because it looked like a big play was being stopped. But as powerful as the heart is, its activities are often silent, or unknown to us. We go through our daily activities without giving the beat of our heart a second thought. It is something that just happens. But as myself, and plenty of other long term survivors of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma will tell you, there is so much more to the beat of a heart, and the various conditions that can exist. Unlike the normal and healthy human being, and perhaps the unknowing human, we are more aware of our heart’s condition.

I am not going to get too technical, as even I will get lost. But the heart has a basic rhythm as pictured above. There are five components, called waves, labelled P, Q, R, S, T. I honestly do not understand the mechanics, but I do know, that if there is an abnormality on your EKG, you will get attention. I do know that in my case, and ALWAYS gets a lot of attention from doctors unaware of my condition, that I have what is called an “inverted T” wave. As you can see from the picture below, compared to the one above, this is not a normal condition.

This “inverted T” wave can be a serious issue, as it is often a sign of what is called “ischemia”, a blockage, or what would likely result in an event of a stroke. Again, not going too deep into the weeds with this. Just know this, this inversion, shows that there is a potential effect on the blood flow through the heart. And this is where Hamlin’s tackle comes in to consideration.

It has been explained by various medical experts on various news programs, that a potential hit to the chest area, during this “T wave” part of the heart rhythm, could impact the flow of blood through the heart, and yes, causing cardiac arrest. While it has not been specifically stated by the Hamlin’s doctors, the speculation is that this “perfect storm,” the tackle and the stage of the heart beat, is what happened. There will likely be more discussed on this, days from now.

Nonetheless, the horror of watching any athlete collapse to the ground, is something we as fans just do not get over. But this time is something different. I recall watching the game where Washington Redskins quarterback broke his thigh bone during a game. I was watching both Jets and Lions games, when Dennis Byrd and Mike Utley were both paralyzed following collisions with their helmets (separate games). Even recently, with all the concussion injuries, these titans still manage to convey to us, usually with a “thumbs up” as they are carted off the field, this situation was different. Whether at the game or watching it on TV, this was different. Hamlin was unable to communicate with us. Everywhere you looked, fellow players, on both teams, were in tears. These seemingly tough guys, though trained to play through all kinds of pain and conditions, were suddenly witness to something, no one could have prepared for.

Of course, the conversation has begun on safety and just how common a situation this might actually be, even if occurring for the first time with the NFL. One news network actually stated a more common occurrence among teenagers aged 14 to 15, involving either a baseball or hockey puck to the chest. Stop and think about that, we hardly, if ever, hear about that. This situation can also occur during an auto accident. This cardiac phenomenon is called “commotio cortis”, caused by a sudden impact to the chest leading to cardiac arrest.

There are plenty of movies that innocently, and often times comedically show a recipient of a chest punch, gasping for air, with the assailant explaining “you will be alright in a few minutes.” One has to wonder with all of the boxing and MMA fights, we have not seen or heard of this before. I know with my own situation, a wired breast bone from my open heart surgery, I have always been sensitive to any impact to my chest for instance, wearing a seatbelt, knowing that in an accident, my breast bone could snap and damage my heart. And do not get me started on the act of CPR on me, if necessary, as it was explained to me how common it is, for ribs to get broken while CPR is being performed.

But this was such an unusual occurrence, and tragic. Hopefully Hamlin will recover fully, only time will tell. And unlike in 1999, when professional wrestler Owen Hart fell to his death from a rapelling accident during his entrance to the ring, and the WWE continued its Pay Per View after Hart had been taken out, the NFL did the right thing, and postponed the game.

We do not know if Hamlin had any other cardiac issues. Like me at 42 years old, why would anyone suspect a 24 year old to have any heart issues? Why would any of us suspect to have anything wrong with us? But the truth is, it can happen, and depending on the circumstance, that is when we find out there is a problem. And for some it can be too late.

My thoughts are with Damar Hamlin, his family, and his teammates and wishing for a full recovery.

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