Cardiac Arrest in Athletics and How PLNU prepares for the worst

AED device located in Golden Gymnasium. Photo by Cade Cavin

On Jan. 2, 2023, the Cincinnati Bengals were leading the Buffalo Bills 7-3 halfway through the first quarter of a pivotal late season NFL game. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow completed a short in-breaking route to wideout Tee Higgins, who turned up field and was tackled by Bills safety Damar Hamlin. As Hamlin got up from what was seemingly a routine play, he collapsed. The whole nation froze as all attention was directed to the life, now hanging in the balance, of the 24-year-old safety out of the University of Pittsburgh. 

Although many speculated a head injury was the cause of Hamlin’s collapse, the reaction by athletic trainers and safety personnel made it evident that something much more serious had occurred. According to Point Loma Nazarene University’s Athletic Training Director Dr. Nicole Cosby, Hamlin experienced an extremely rare condition known as Commotio Cordis. Dr. Cosby said it should be noted that she is not a physician, although she does have her doctorate in Sports Medicine. 

“Essentially, when the blow occurs to the chest region, if the blow is forceful enough it will disrupt the heart’s normal rhythm causing ventricular fibrillation. When the heart enters into fibrillation it cannot efficiently pump blood to the rest of the body,” Dr. Cosby said. 

The timing of Hamlin’s hit on Higgins occurred at the worst possible moment, causing him to enter cardiac arrest. Dr. Cosby stressed how lucky Hamlin was to have medical personnel that not only responded hastily, but were also CPR certified, allowing them to save his life. 

Although Commotio Cordis more commonly occurs in more intense contact sports such as football, hockey or boxing, Dr. Cosby says it is not impossible for an athlete in another sport to experience this rare condition. 

“I would say any incident where a patient receives a violent blow to the chest would increase the risk of suffering from [Commotio Cordis],” Dr. Cosby said. 

If a life threatening condition such as Commotio Cordis is a potential risk for athletes in contact sports, how does PLNU prepare for and act during a cardiac event? 

Dr. Arnel Aguinaldo, an associate professor of kinesiology at PLNU, says that PLNU’s campus is outfitted with Automated External Defibrillators, or AEDs, in the event that an athlete needs to be resuscitated. 

“As a certified AT, I know that our training room staff have accessible AEDs and an Emergency Action Plan in place,” he said. 

PLNU women’s soccer coach Kristi Kiely praised the hard working and dedicated athletic training staff on campus for their approach toward taking care of PLNU athletes, whether in the event of a cardiac event or otherwise. 

“Football is a very different sport in terms of health and safety. I do think our Sports Med Clinic does a tremendous job caring for our athletes holistically, including cardiac events. They even train us coaches regularly for certain scenarios should something happen during training,” Kiely said. 

According to a map on PLNU’s website, 10 AEDs are located throughout campus, including one near the soccer and baseball fields, one in Golden Gymnasium and two in Nicholson Commons/Cunningham Dining Room. 

Commotio Cordis is not a condition that can be prevented, exactly, but students at PLNU can rest assured that the campus is outfitted with plenty of AEDs, CPR trained staff and athletic trainers that will take quick and decisive action in order to save a life that may be at risk. 

Written By: Cade Cavin