Cardiac arrest in youth athletes is rare, but does happen. Here’s how to be prepared.

When Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during a football game Monday night after suffering a cardiac arrest, Heather O’Donnell said it confirmed her greatest fear. 

“It was like watching my worst nightmare,” said Heather O’Donnell, whose 10-year-old son, Jack, plays hockey in Virginia. “He could get hit in the wrong place. Something could happen. No sport is 100% safe.” 

About 60 million kids in the U.S. participate in organized sports, and cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death among young athletes. 

Dr. Korin Hudson, a MedStar Health emergency physician, said what happened to Hamlin can “absolutely” happen to a child. 

“It can happen at any time,” said Hudson, who works with teams like the Washington Wizards and Capitals. “[It’s] very rare, but we do know it may happen as frequently as once every five days.”

“Now, there are a lot of athletes in high school and collegiate sports in this country,” Hudson said. “But once every five days is probably more often than we think about.”

Hudson said the best way to be prepared for the potential is to have the training and equipment necessary to respond. 

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That equipment includes an AED — an automated external defibrillator. If used within the first minute, chances of survival are close to 90% 

Hudson said parents should know where the closest AED is, always have a way to dial 911, ask coaches if they know CPR, and make sure their school or club has an emergency action plan. 

“You can learn how to use an AED in less than two minutes,” Hudson said. “Anybody can do these skills.” 

The American Heart Association offers online courses teaching CPR and how to use an AED, Hudson said. 


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