Hamlin, Pegula show how sudden cardiac arrest can upend lives

During February’s American Heart Month, the NFL’s Buffalo Bills provided us with two contrasting tales about the potential for triumph — and heartbreak — when one’s cardiovascular function is compromised.

The former: Defensive back Damar Hamlin’s remarkable recovery from the cardiac arrest he suffered during a game on Jan. 2. 

The latter: The revelation from her daughter, professional tennis player Jessica Pegula, that team co-owner, president and part-time Boca Raton resident Kim Pegula, 53, had suffered cardiac arrest in June — and is still working to recover from the incident.

In an essay posted earlier this month on The Players' Tribune, Jessica Pegula (right) revealed that her mom, Kim, had suffered cardiac arrest in June and is still working to recover from the effects, which include significant language and memory issues.

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Damar Hamlin sees purpose after cardiac arrest, still processing trauma

During Super Bowl week in Phoenix, Ariz. Hamlin received numerous honors and made his first in-person public statements.

On Feb. 9 he was named the NFLPA's Alan Page Community Award winner for his work in the community and the worldwide inspiration he provided. Hamlin received $100,000 to go toward his Chasing M's charitable foundation.

Later that night at the official NFL Honors event, he and the entire Bills athletic training and medical staff, as well as University of Cincinnati Health staff members, were honored on stage.

On Feb. 9 Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin was named the NFLPA's Alan Page Community Award winner for his work in the community and the worldwide inspiration he provided in recovering from the cardiac arrest he suffered during a game on Jan. 2.

Hamlin’s speech was especially poignant.

"First, I would like to just thank God for even being here," he said. "Every day I am amazed that my experiences could encourage so many others across the country and even across the world —encourage to pray, encourage to spread love and encourage to keep fighting no matter the circumstances. Sudden cardiac arrest was nothing I would have ever chosen to be a part of my story, but that's because sometimes our own visions are too small even when we think we are seeing the bigger picture. My vision was about playing in the NFL and being the best player that I could be, but God's plan was to have a purpose greater than any game in this world ... I have a long journey ahead, a journey full of unknowns and a journey full of milestones, but it's a lot easier to face your fears when you know your purpose."

He also sat down for his first interview, which was conducted by “Good Morning America” host Michael Strahan.

He started by saying that “I owe [Bills assistant athletic trainer] Denny [Kellington] my life, literally. He loves to say he was just doing his job, which is true. That night he was literally the savior of my life administering CPR on me, that's something I'm truly thankful for and I don't take for granted."

Hamlin also told Strahan that he was "still trying to process all the emotions and the trauma that comes from dealing with a situation like that and not really having people around or no one in my immediate circle who's dealt with something like that.”

As for eventually resuming his football career, he explained "that's always the goal, but I'm allowing that to be in God's hands."

Path to recovery for Kim Pegula, Buffalo Bills co-owner complicated

In the middle of June, the Pegula family and Buffalo Bills organization released the following joint statement: "Kim Pegula is receiving medical care as a result of some unexpected health issues. We are very grateful for the progress she has made over the past few days. She has an exceptional team of medical experts at her side. We ask that you keep Kim and our family in your prayers and ask that you respect our need for privacy."

Later reports confirmed that she was being treated in the Intensive Care Unit at Baptist Health Boca Raton Regional Hospital.

But since that time, she never returned to her full-time positions as president of both the Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres (another franchise the Pegulas own), and there had been no public updates on her condition.

That is, until Feb. 7 when daughter Jessica — the highest-ranked American tennis player and world No. 4 in singles — posted an essay on The Players’ Tribune.

Jessica recounted receiving a horrible middle-of-the-night phone call from her sister: “I got a call around midnight (on my mom’s birthday) from my sister Kelly who was staying at my parents’ house. Something was wrong with our mom, and she was headed to the hospital in an ambulance. My mom was asleep when my dad woke up to her going into cardiac arrest and she was unresponsive for quite a while. My sister gave her CPR until the ambulance arrived. She saved her life.”

When Jessica Pegula played at Wimbledon a month after her mom Kim suffered cardiac arrest, she "had to deal with a lot of speculation and questions surrounding [my mom’s] health, even shutting down rumors that she had died.”

Once Kim arrived at the hospital doctors “figured out what was wrong, they fixed it, but the big question was how she would be when she woke up. Our concern had now moved from the cardiac arrest to a brain injury. Not to mention all the other issues that come with both of those events. Breathing, swallowing, preventing infections, there are so many things that can go wrong.”

Jessica writes that the family spent the next two weeks essentially living in the hospital.

As Kim made small improvements during the first week, she was moved out of the ICU and into an in-patient rehab facility.

“She was aware, talking a little, but a long way from her normal self,” writes Jessica.  “After a long two weeks, she was in a good set-up to start her recovery which we knew would take a very, very long time. Three of my best friends are doctors and after the situation calmed down, they told me that it was a miracle she was even on her way to recovery, as did every other doctor who worked with her.”

Long-term prognosis

In July, Jessica played at Wimbledon and, with little preparation and fighting her own illness, made it to the third round ― but said that traveling outside of Florida was difficult because “I had to deal with a lot of speculation and questions surrounding [my mom’s] health, even shutting down rumors that she had died.”

Jessica writes that “her mom is still in recovery and although it is the same answer every time someone asks me, it is true, she is improving every day. She is dealing with significant expressive aphasia and significant memory issues. She can read, write, and understand pretty well, but she has trouble finding the words to respond. It is hard to deal with and it takes a lot of patience to communicate with her, but I thank God every day that we can still communicate with her at all.”

Until suffering cardiac arrest on her birthday in June, Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula, a part-time Boca Raton resident, served as president of both organizations. Her daughter, professional tennis player Jessica Pegula, revealed that while Kim is working hard in her rehabilitation, the family recognizes she may never fully recover.

As for Kim’s long-term prognosis and whether or not she’ll ever be able to resume the vibrant, active professional life she once had, Jessica writes that the family is realistic.

“Now we come to the realization that all of that is most likely gone. That she won’t be able to be that person anymore. My mom is working hard in her recovery, she is improving, but where she ends up is still unknown.”


While some symptoms for a heart attack in women are the same as in men (chest pain, jaw pain, shoulder pain, sweating, nausea, shortness of breath), oftentimes women suffer unique symptoms that can delay diagnosis. These symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue (which is often the first and most unrecognized symptom).

  • Back pain between the shoulder blades.

  • Indigestion and/or heart burn.

  • Lightheadedness or dizziness.

  • A sense of chest tightness or pressure ― but not necessarily "pain."

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Damar Hamlin not only one with Buffalo Bills to suffer heart scare this year.