“Surviving the Unthinkable: How Damar Hamlin and Sarah Taffet Defied Death with CPR

Damar Hamlin

Difference between life and death

The difference between life and death became starkly evident during a fateful moment on January 2, 2023. As Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the football field after a routine tackle in a nationally televised game against the Cincinnati Bengals, his life hung in the balance. He had suffered from commotio cordis, a specific type of cardiac arrest. Without swift intervention, this condition had a staggering fatality rate of 97% within three minutes.

The team’s trainers and paramedics sprang into action immediately, racing to Hamlin’s side. They performed CPR and utilized an AED to restore his heart rhythm, which had been disrupted by the impact to his chest. Every passing second counted, and the quick response made all the difference. Dr. William Knight IV, an emergency medicine and trauma specialist at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, vividly recalls the critical moments when Hamlin arrived at the hospital in critical condition. He emphasized that a mere few extra minutes or even seconds could have yielded a completely different outcome.

Remarkably, Hamlin’s heartbeat was restored on the field, setting the stage for his eventual release from the hospital just one week later. He emerged not only as a survivor of one of the nation’s leading causes of death but also as someone free from any brain damage or injury, a rarity that less than 10% of cardiac arrest survivors experience.

Sarah Taffet

Sarah Taffet, who herself went through a similar journey, understood the weight of every step Hamlin had taken. Taffet, a former softball player at Fordham University, had experienced cardiac arrest during a game on October 3, 2021. She was revived by the quick actions of an athletic trainer and other medical professionals who administered CPR and utilized an AED. Subsequent medical examinations revealed that Taffet had a congenital heart defect known as ALCAPA, a condition with a 90% mortality rate within the first year of life.

When Taffet heard about Hamlin’s ordeal, her heart sank. She knew firsthand the emotions that would envelop him and everyone around him—the fear, the concern, and the process of learning to cope with such a traumatic event. Learning of Hamlin’s recovery, Taffet yearned to meet him and make a difference alongside him.

HOPE Week

Their desire to make a positive impact manifested on the first day of the Yankees’ 14th annual HOPE Week (Helping Others Persevere & Excel). Standing in the outfield of Yankee Stadium, Hamlin and Taffet shared their stories before a large gathering of Yankees players, personnel from the NYC Public School Athletic Leagues (PSAL), and representatives from the American Heart Association (AHA). They had all convened to participate in CPR training and witness a demonstration of how to use an AED.

Later that night, as the Yankees prepared to open a four-game series against the Orioles, Hamlin and Taffet returned to the field to throw out the ceremonial first pitches. Hamlin, donning a pinstriped jersey with Babe Ruth’s iconic No. 3, received a surprise AmeriCorps President’s Volunteer Service Award, becoming the first HOPE Week honoree of 2023.

During the afternoon training session, several Yankees players including All-Star Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rizzo, Luis Severino, Anthony Volpe, Tommy Kahnle, Michael King, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Kyle Higashioka, Jake Bauers, and bench coach Carlos Mendoza actively participated. The Yankees’ head athletic trainer, Tim Lentych, who is certified in CPR, emphasized the importance of learning and regularly refreshing these life-saving skills. He reminded the group that staying prepared could make a crucial difference when faced with a traumatic or life-threatening situation involving a friend or family member.

David Chubak, the board chairman of the AHA’s New York chapter, highlighted the staggering number of sudden cardiac arrest cases in the United States—350,000 each year, with the majority occurring at home. He somberly revealed that 90% of those cases result in fatalities. Chubak expressed the collective determination to reverse these statistics and improve heart health outcomes, urging everyone present to recognize the significance of immediate CPR, which can double or even triple a person’s chances of recovery.

With red mats spread across the outfield grass, the players and volunteers knelt down, fully engaged in the hands-only CPR training provided by the AHA. The training kit included an inflatable manikin, a user guide, and an instructional DVD. Led by Dr. Sachin Agarwal from New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, an expert in neurological intensive care and post-cardiac arrest care, the interactive session guided the participants through the stages of recognizing cardiac arrest and performing the necessary actions. They learned that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is no longer recommended, as consistent chest compressions have been deemed more effective.

Reflecting on the experience, Anthony Rizzo acknowledged the significance of having a dedicated support staff on hand at all times, ready to undergo rigorous training for the purpose of saving lives. He expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to learn CPR, hoping that he would never have to use it but feeling prepared in case the need arose.

As the session drew to a close, Julia Steinbrenner, co-president of the New York Yankees Foundation and sister of George Steinbrenner, presented a $10,000 check to the American Heart Association. The donation was specifically earmarked for CPR training classes, a gesture that underscored the Yankees’ commitment to making a meaningful impact.

For rookie shortstop Anthony Volpe, the event held a special significance. Although it was his first HOPE Week with the Major League team, he had previously participated in the annual event during his time in the Minor Leagues. Volpe cherished the opportunity to raise awareness for different causes and recognized the profound impact that players like him could have beyond the realm of baseball.

Hamlin, well aware of the power of athletes to effect change, had already embarked on a journey to promote CPR awareness and education. In partnership with the American Heart Association, he launched the “#3forHeart CPR Challenge” in February, successfully raising nearly $2.5 million. These funds supported initiatives aimed at increasing awareness and education surrounding CPR. Furthermore, Hamlin had the privilege of meeting President Joe Biden at the White House in March and speaking before Congress in support of legislation known as the “Access to AEDs Act.” This act sought to improve access to AEDs in schools while providing training on their usage.

The event at Yankee Stadium served as a natural extension of Hamlin’s ongoing work, and he felt an immense sense of pride being a part of it. Recognizing the Yankees as a historic institution, renowned not only in New York but worldwide, Hamlin believed that their participation in CPR training would ripple across the globe, inspiring others to seek similar training. He regarded his involvement as an opportunity to make a lasting impact, fulfilling a lifelong goal to effect positive change in the world, long before he gained recognition on a broader scale.

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