ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Almost half a year ago, when Damar Hamlin collapsed during a game between the Bills and Bengals, it seemed like the entire country held its breath. In what appeared at first to be a minor collision, Hamlin suffered commotio cordis, which disrupted the rhythm of his heart and caused cardiac arrest.
There, on the field, Hamlin's life was saved by the quick thinking and action by Buffalo's training staff, which administered CPR and used an automated external defibrillator (AED), to help resuscitate him before he could be transported for more thorough care at a hospital.
In the months since, Hamlin has recovered and made AED access and CPR training his mission, and the NFL and its teams have worked to join him in that effort.
On Wednesday, as the Denver Broncos Foundation joined with Children's Hospital Colorado and Rocky Mountain CPR, the organization aimed to help that goal by providing 32 AEDs to 27 high schools and organizations and making free CPR certification available to attendees as part of a program to educate a group of coaches, athletic directors and athletic trainers on several health protocols for young athletes.
"So much of our youth health and wellness programming is focused on ensuring that youth have equitable opportunities, safe places to play, and caring adults looking out for them. This Denver Broncos Foundation initiative prioritizes health and safety anywhere kids are active," said Allie Engelken, Executive Director of the Denver Broncos Foundation. "We want to make sure kids have access to the care they may need through AEDs or CPR training with support from the empowered adults who were here today and completed the certification process."
Children's Hospital Colorado led the presentation to discuss how to recognize symptoms of and when to treat sudden cardiac arrest, in addition to important sections on heat illness and concussions. The program noted that sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death among youth athletes, which has a rate somewhere between 1 in 50,000-80,000 young athletes.
While that sounds quite rare, it still represents a catastrophic event for many families, and in a place as large as Denver and its surrounding municipalities, that could be several avoidable tragedies.
"If you think about the Denver metro area or a large city somewhere, they have hundreds of thousands of youth athletes in the community," said Dennis Coonan, Program Manager of Children's Hospital Colorado's sports medicine center. "You're talking about maybe losing two or three or four a year. That's scary. And a lot of those are preventable."
An AED can be a particularly effective life-saving tool, as Hamlin experienced. Coonan said survival rate for sudden cardiac arrest is about 50 to 70 percent if an AED is administered within five minutes of the event. With every passing minute that one is not placed and used, survival rate drops an additional 10 percent.
Sudden cardiac arrest can occur in young athletes for a number of reasons, including commotio cordis, genetic conditions or other disorders. Commotio cordis is when a hard hit to the chest — perhaps a collision with another athlete or with a piece of equipment, like a baseball — disrupts the heart's rhythm. If an AED is available, it can cut fatality rates simply by being within reach.
"I think it's that high because, or the highest cause, because it's the least prepared for," said Jay Albright, who is the surgical director of sports medicine at Children's Hospital Colorado. "So if you think about the little league coach that is on the field and a kid gets a line drive and doesn't have time enough to react and gets hit in the chest and they collapse, they probably don't have an AED. They probably don't even have BLS [basic life support] and CPR training. So they're less likely to get that initial care in that setting than Damar Hamlin. So that's where I think this is a perfect mixture of things with Broncos and Children's to be able to help educate our community on how to play safe."
The first steps to addressing life-threatening problems like these, though, is education, investment and training, and with Wednesday's session, the Denver Broncos Foundation helped several schools and organizations.
"The goal of today is education and awareness, and that's a key component to our youth health and wellness outreach," Engelken said. "It's ensuring that information is accurate and individuals are trained for any situation that may arise while children are in their care. Today's sessions, AED donation, CPR training, heat and health awareness, concussion protocols — if that saves one life, then programs like this are worthwhile and are important for the Foundation to continue."