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For Damar Hamlin it was emergency medical professionals that saved his life; for me it was my neighbors

The key in Hamlin’s situation and mine was quick administration of CPR.

The Buffalo Bills taking a knee in prayer as Bills safety Damar Hamlin is taken off the field by ambulance, background, during their January 2 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Buffalo Bills taking a knee in prayer as Bills safety Damar Hamlin is taken off the field by ambulance, background, during their January 2 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports

Positive news continues regarding the Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin who suffered a cardiac arrest during the Monday Night Football game on Jan. 2. Across the nation, many rallied around the 24-year-old who moved from critical condition on a ventilator to FaceTiming his team and live-tweeting while he watched them win their next game.

NFL games drawing large audiences and opinions come from all corners and issues examined included safety of football, CPR training and pressure to perform after a tragedy.

A perspective I hoped to see still escaped me. Let’s hear from someone who survived a cardiac arrest, hopefully a view including experience with sports competitions and accompanying ramifications.

Desiring to hear from a similar source? Let me offer one up.

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On Dec. 20, 2019, upon recognizing the onset of anaphylactic shock that led to cardiac arrest, I headed for the vehicle to get to a medical facility. The trip would take some harrowing turns.

Airflow quickly diminishing, I was able to open the door but collapsed backwards onto the frozen driveway in the dark. Studies point to a 7% survival rate for cardiac arrests victims when an automated external defibrillator (AED) is not available. Across the street, Josh Haseman and his wife Melissa just stepped out to grab supper and heard my wife, Susie, screaming. A veteran of the National Guard, Josh learned CPR as a young man. Although the training went unused for several decades, he was ready.

Adjacent neighbors, the Retes, giving a Minnesota good-bye to guests heard the commotion and their daughter called 911. A block away Jason Monnens was running across the ice and snow towards us. A member of our volunteer fire department, Monnens clarified vital details about the location and assisted with the ambulance when it arrived minutes later. EMTs included Lindsey and Kelly, former students of mine, and my wife’s co-worker Tracy.

They saved my life. We are small town in St. James and surrounded by people who are capable and caring. Their actions kept me alive. If you want to look for a miracle it could be that they all happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Doubtful that Hamlin would say any place is a good place to have a cardiac arrest, but there are far worse places for heart stoppage than having NFL trainers located a couple dozen yards away in either direction.

The key in Hamlin’s situation and mine was quick administration of CPR. Learn it if you have not already. A Mayo Clinic can be seen from our kitchen window in St. James and I woke up the next morning in the Mankato-Mayo Clinic. Fortunate to have those facilities close by, their skilled people and advanced technology would have been neutralized without Haseman’s fast and effective actions.

Pundits offered up that Hamlin’s health was threatened because of the violence of football. Experts pushed a theory that it was a freak occurrence where impact aligned with a precise stage of the heart’s rhythm.

Definite risks come with playing football. As a player, and now a coach for the past 35 years, those risks are ever-present but safety precautions are miles ahead of where we used to be.

At the same time, a nation witnessed teammates, opponents, fans, and the general public from coast to coast unite in offering up genuine prayers. Concern was proven authentic as Hamlin’s charity received more than $8 million in donations in less than a week. Fans talked about seeing Hamlin as a family member.

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A nationally-televised NFL game turned this seeming tragedy into a strong display of positive intents and actions.

Logan, my youngest son, was set to play basketball against Fairmont the night of my heart attack. Pulled off the floor during warmups, he arrived in the ER to learn about the temporary loss of life functions leading to his father on life support. Pacing for a bit, unqualified to render medical assistance, he did the next best thing. He did what I would want him to do. Returning to the game in progress, he scored 19 points off the bench.

Later, I suggested he score at least 20 points the next time he leaves me for dead.

Teammates, or sons, react differently in these situations. Grief studies back that up. Dealing with a player’s death became part of my coaching duties a year into the position. Some kids want to shut down, some want to play because they are full of emotion and unsure what else to do. There is no one way to handle it and no coaching manual to reference.

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Hamlin’s first communication after regaining consciousness was to inquire as to whether the team won. “You won the game of life,” was the response he received.

photo of article author
Lee Carlson
Good news buoyed Buffalo Bills teammates to a victory the next week, featuring a touchdown return on the opening kickoff. Fans went wild and Hamlin issued an equally inspired Twitter message.

My return carried less fanfare of course.

Holiday break ended and I was back teaching, didn’t miss a day of work. Each morning I head to school, walking across the spot where I lay unalive for that short period.

My heart beats regular and carries gratitude for that timely CPR and a community, a team, prepared to care in whatever way was needed.

Lee Carlson is a high school English teacher, football and track coach, and drives a school bus.