It was a horrifying scene.

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed from sudden cardiac arrest during a nationally televised game. Emergency personnel performed CPR, reviving him before bringing him to the hospital where he is in critical condition.

But what could cause cardiac arrest in Hamlin – a seemingly healthy 24-year-old pro athlete?

St. Vincent’s Medical Center interventional cardiologist Jared Selter, MD, offers insight into what may have happened, the risk factors you need to know, and how you can help someone in the midst of cardiac arrest.

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An electrical problem in the heart

Hamlin collapsed after making a tackle, and the hard hit could have been the culprit.

If Hamlin got hit in the chest at exactly the right time, it may have caused a change in his heartbeat that sent him into cardiac arrest, says Dr. Selter.

“Cardiac arrest normally occurs when the heart doesn’t have its normal pumping function,” says Selter, medical director of the cardiac catherization laboratory at St. Vincent’s Medical Center. “It can’t squeeze and the muscle isn’t pumping in a coordinated fashion—usually caused by an electrical problem,” says Selter. “On rare occasions you can get the delivery of energy at the wrong time when the heart is resetting its electrical signal. During that play [Hamlin] did take a hard hit to the chest and that energy can be enough to trigger this electrical problem.”

Sudden cardiac arrest is rare, but these risk factors are important to know

While it’s a rare occurrence for a collision like this to cause cardiac arrest, Selter says this type of event can also happen to people who might be genetically predisposed to sudden cardiac arrest.

Risk factors include:

  • A family history of coronary artery disease
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Inactive lifestyles

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CPR can save a life in situations like this

Selter says one thing is certain: quick CPR is crucial to a patient’s chances for survival.

“Every single second counts,” Selter says. “The brain and other organs without oxygen — even during short periods of time — can be damaged. CPR has to happen immediately to ensure the best chance for recovery,” he says. “The team at the hospital is often lauded as the heroes for performing the more advanced therapies — like emergency angioplasty or stenting — when in reality it’s the people who performed CPR in the field who allow us to save a life.”

It’s not just medical personnel who can save lives with CPR. If you wish to learn CPR, sign up for a class with Hartford HealthCare.