March 17, 2023

Sudden cardiac arrest in athletes

Two football players on the field

NFL’s Damar Hamlin survived sudden cardiac arrest. You might save someone else.

Many of us were shocked by the sight of Damar Hamlin, the 25-year-old professional football player who almost died on the field earlier this year Monday Night Football.

Hamlin survived a rare episode of sudden cardiac arrest. His heart stopped pumping blood throughout the body. Many feared he would not survive, but trainers and medical personnel on site rushed to his aid, saving his life.

“When the heart stops beating,” says UW Health Kids cardiologist Kathleen Maginot, “every second is precious in terms of saving that life. With each minute that goes by, the victim’s chance of survival decreases by 7% to 10%.”

We tend to associate sudden cardiac arrest with young athletes, primarily because incidents such as Hamlin’s get so much attention. It’s important to realize, however, that staying active — be it through organized high school or college athletics or on your own — significantly lowers your risk of sudden cardiac arrest or other more common heart problems.

“Staying physically active is one of the best ways to keep your heart healthy and prevent disease,” says UW Health Kids cardiologist Nick Von Bergen. “Everyone remembers the high-profile athlete who collapses on TV. Yet sudden cardiac arrest, as rare as it is, happens far more often to inactive people than to active people,” he adds.

Even though cardiac arrest is rare in children and young adults, cardiac disease remains the number one cause of death in the nation. Accordingly, Drs. Von Bergen and Maginot stress the importance of being prepared to respond to a cardiac arrest, just in case.

Fortunately, all Wisconsin and Illinois students receive instruction about CPR and AEDs (automated external defibrillators) before graduating from high school. The #1 message is stark and simple.


Remember these three words if you see someone collapse and fail to respond to your voice:


Step 1 is to call 911 immediately, or better yet, yell for someone nearby to call 911 while you attend to the unresponsive person.

Step 2 is to start hands-only CPR. If you are unable to determine if the person has a pulse, place the heel of one of your hands in the center of their chest (the center is the midpoint between the nipples).

Place the heel of your other hand on top of the first hand and interlace your fingers.

Keep your shoulders directly over your hands and your arms straight. Then start pushing hard and fast on the person’s chest over and over. Think of the disco song “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees and push to the beat, which is about 100 beats per minutes.

Step 3 is to use an AED to restore the unresponsive person’s normal heart rhythm and stop them from dying. Ideally, you would send another person to locate and bring back the AED while you stay with the victim.

Virtually anyone can operate an AED without training. Still, it’s not a bad idea to view a “how to use an AED” video online every so often, but once you turn the AED on, it will speak to you with easy step-by-step instructions. If you or a bystander is on the phone with 911, the 911 operator can also provide step-by-step guidance.

Each AED comes with two electrode pads that you place on the person’s bare chest. The AED will automatically assess the patient and tell you whether the victim requires a shock, which you can give by pressing a clearly marked button on the device.

Free app helps you locate a nearby AED

AEDs are located (usually on the wall) in public buildings such as schools, airports, health clubs, government and private office buildings, sports arenas, places of worship and certain businesses.

A great way to locate the closest AED to you is to download the PulsePointAED free app on your mobile phone. (Do it today so you have it, just in case.) It’s a good idea to know the location of AEDs that are near your home, school or workplace.

“Damar Hamlin, thankfully, is still with us,” says Dr. Maginot. “The greatest gift he gives everyone else, aside from his survival, is the opportunity to remember the three simple steps we can take if we ever witness something like what happened to him. Call. Push. Shock.”