Bills athletic trainers are urging schools to make life-saving plans

Associated PressJune 22, 2023, 5:48 PM ET4 minute reading

INDIANAPOLIS — When Buffalo Bills athletic trainers Nate Breske and Denny Kellington rushed onto the field after Damar Hamlin’s collapse in January, they stuck to the plan — right down to positioning Hamlin’s teammates to shield the television cameras.

Their quick actions saved Hamlin’s life. Now they are trying to save others.

On Thursday, Breske and Kellington told a convention of athletic trainers in Indianapolis that advance planning and regular practice helped prepare them for a worst-case scenario, and they are urging schools and youth leagues to start creating their own emergency action plans.

“First of all, I don’t think anything can prepare you for what we went through in that moment,” Breske said. “It was the first time we had seen it on a live person, but we had practiced it. We had done chest compressions before, we had done things with our paramedics and the other doctors, so we were ready and everyone knew their role and what should happen at that moment.”

The story of what happened has been retold many times over the past six months.

Hamlin, the former University of Pittsburgh star, went from sixth-round draft pick in 2021 to starter last season when veteran Micah Hyde suffered a neck injury in Week 3. He went into cardiac arrest after making a routine tackle during a NFL game in Cincinnati on January 2nd.

Breske and Kellington helped revive Hamlin with CPR and an automated external defibrillator before an ambulance rushed Hamlin to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. A week later he flew home to western New York.

Hamlin was cleared to resume full practice on May 31 and now uses his charity, the Chasing M’s Foundation, to distribute AEDs while reinforcing the importance of CPR training.

In April, Hamlin’s doctors concluded that a blow to the chest caused his heart to stop due to a rare condition – commotio cordis, which occurs when a severe blow to the chest causes the heart to quiver and stop pumping blood effectively.

He was lucky because NFL teams invest heavily in medical equipment and personnel.

But in recreational and youth leagues and even high schools and middle schools, hiring instructors or purchasing machines like AEDs can prove prohibitive.

According to the National Athletic Trainers Association, only 37% of America’s public high schools have full access to athletic trainers, despite statistics showing that 93.4% of sports-related deaths in children are caused by sudden cardiac arrest, exertional heatstroke, or exertional sickle, which can occur in people who carry the sickle cell trait.

Breske, Kellington, Hamlin and others want to change those numbers.

“There have to be coaches out there,” Kellington said. “I know cost is one thing and communities don’t have the money to do that, but what’s the cost of a life? How can you not have somebody there? If it’s your child and something happens and there is no one to help, how would you be upset just because of lack of funding or lack of knowledge?”

State legislators also get involved.

In 2022, the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation reported that 40 states required CPR training for all students before graduation, while only 20 states and the District of Columbia required AEDs to be in schools. California also requires schools with sports teams to have AEDs on school grounds.

Hamlin’s experience brought the issue into focus.

Since then, a coalition of the NFL, NBA, NCAA NHL, MLS, Major League Baseball NATA, the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross have lobbied to make emergency action plans, CPR and AED training for coaches and clearly labeled defibrillators mandatory in all 50 states.

Last week, the Ohio House of Representatives approved legislation that would require AEDs to be available at nearly every school or sports and recreation venue in the state.

And to help defray the costs, the NFL Foundation has committed $1 million in grants.

“Teachers have tended to be taught CPR and how to use an AED in 10 minutes,” Breske said. “You don’t have to be certified to do it. It’s awareness of what’s going on, it’s a 911 call, doing chest compressions and getting the AED in place.”

Without these tools and the actions of the coaches, Hamlin’s return to the playing field might not have been possible, and Breske and Kellington know that.

Their mission now is to use their platform to inform, educate and push for change to make the world of sports safer at all levels of competition.

“Over the last few months, people have been asking, ‘don’t you have to be certified to perform CPR or use an AED?’ That’s not the case,” Kellington said.

“Bystander CPR is a great way to save someone’s life. And, as I said earlier, the machine tells you what to do. The failure to do anything is what puts children at risk. I think we should all see around and see what we’re all doing.”

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