Last night I settled in to watch my beloved Bengals take on the Buffalo Bills in a game that could clinch the division for us. I’ve been a Bengals fan for 50 years. This is the first time in about 40 years our team has been any good, making a Super Bowl run last year and leading our division with two games to go this year. The whole league was excited about this game as it was to pit two of the best young quarterbacks in the league against each other.
The Bengals came out of the gate strong, scoring a touchdown on the first drive. Buffalo answered with a field goal. The Bengals were driving when, on a routine pass across the middle, Tee Higgins collided with Damar Hamlin, driving his shoulder into Hamlin’s chest as Hamlin took Tee to the ground. Hamlin quickly jumped to his feet, then collapsed onto the field, motionless. I assumed he must have suffered a blow to the head. The replay showed it was his chest instead.
After several commercial breaks and much speculation about his injury, we learned he had gone into cardiac arrest, and CPR had been performed on him. 30 minutes later, they took him from the field in an ambulance.
Players were in tears. Some put towels over their heads. The stadium was eerily quiet. No one had seen anything like this. In my five decades watching football, I’ve seen compound fractures, spinal injuries, concussions, and torn ligaments. But never have I seen a player go into cardiac arrest.
An hour later, the game was postponed indefinitely. The players couldn’t go on. They wouldn’t go on until they knew their brother was OK. I went to bed with the only word being his heart had been restarted on the field, he had been sedated and intubated, and he was in critical condition.
I woke this morning, dreading hearing that he hadn’t made it. But as of this afternoon, there has been no chance in Damar Hamlin’s status.
The speculation (and it’s a pretty good guess from what I’ve been able to ascertain) is the injury Damar suffered is a very rare condition called commotio cordis. It’s rare, but most often occurs in sports where a projectile like a hockey puck, lacrosse ball, or baseball, strikes a person in the chest. The blow must be time perfectly with the heart’s rhythm, striking as on the upstroke of the t portion of the cardiac rhythm. That’s why it’s so rare. The timing must be precise to send the heart into fibrillation and cause cardiac arrest.
Predictably, this morning people were looking for a reason this happened. Some speculated it was the coronavirus vaccine (come on, people!). Some thought he must have had an underlying condition. And predictably, many blamed the “brutal” sport of football. I understand. We are always looking for “why.” We want to have someone or something to blame. Also, we need to insulate ourselves from this happening to us or someone we love.
People even went on social media and attacked Tee Higgins, the receiver Damar was tackling. This was a routine football play. Neither player did anything wrong. It’s not their fault. It’s not the NFL’s fault. It’s not football’s fault. It’s something that happened with no one and nothing to blame.
People always ask me what caused Shayna’s death. What condition did she have? Part of that is curiosity. But I believe the more significant part is that people want to know it won’t happen to their children or grandchildren. Frankly, Shayna did have a heart condition. But her cardiologist assured us it was not life-threatening. People with her condition live long and healthy lives. She was cleared for all sports, under no restrictions, and on no medications for the condition. The reality is she passed from SUDC Sudden Unexplained Death in Children. I know of other children who have died in their beds, doing the dishes or sleeping on a train.
We want to believe that we can control the risks in our lives. If we do the right things and avoid the wrong things, everything will be OK. People want to believe that had Damar not chosen to play football, Damar wouldn’t have suffered this life-threatening injury. The reality is this could have happened in a million ways. And he could take that same blow thousands of times and get up like all the times he did in the past.
There are no guarantees in life. When Shayna passed, she had just returned from an out-of-state trip. I worried about her on the flights. I worried while she was sleeping in the hotel in Florida. I worried about her injuring her knee again while playing volleyball. I did not worry the night she slipped away in her sleep, just a few feet down the hall from me, safe in her bed.
As an engineer, I marvel at the intricacies of our bodies. The chemical reactions that have to happen precisely in the various organs and organ systems amaze me. The electrical connections. The firing of our hearts millions and billions of times over a lifetime. All are precisely engineered and fine-tuned. However, this morning, I took my car in for service. My car is much less complex than the human body. Yet it inevitably breaks down, just like the human body. We are so sturdy in one sense. Yet, we are so fragile in another. A blow to the chest at just the right time can instantly stop our hearts.
I don’t say this to be morose or to invoke fear. Quite the contrary. We should live our lives fully, knowing that each moment is precious and the next moment is never guaranteed. We should be grateful to our bodies for what they provide us while being aware that they are not infallible. We must take calculated risks knowing that even remaining in our beds doesn’t guarantee our safety. Life itself is a risk. You cannot avoid it all.
I will continue to watch football, the sport I love. I pray for Damar’s full recovery and the peace of his family. And today, I’m just a bit more grateful for my health, such as it is.