Jan. 4—When Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field Monday night from cardiac arrest, it stunned the country.
But cardiac arrest — which essentially means the heart stops beating — is a fairly common health issue, and one that can be attended to by nearly anyone with knowledge of CPR or a defibrillator, said Dr. Ken Stewart, assistant professor of primary care at KCU-Joplin.
"Everybody can learn how to do CPR," he said in an interview Wednesday with the Globe. "There are all kinds of community outlets (to learn). ... And knowing how to activate and utilize a defibrillator — I think those are two absolutely essential skills for people to learn."
More than 356,000 cardiac arrests occur outside a hospital in the U.S. each year, according to the American Heart Association. Cardiac arrest is caused when the heart's electrical system malfunctions and the heart stops beating properly; it is not the same as a heart attack, which is caused by a blockage that stops blood flow to the heart, according to the group.
Cardiac arrest is often the "conclusion" of heart disease, and the risk of it increases as we age, Stewart said. Other risk factors include poor diet, lack of exercise and comorbidities such as diabetes or high cholesterol, he said.
While much remains unknown about Hamlin's health history and what might have led to his on-field incident, one thing likely will be the same for nearly every patient of cardiac arrest: sudden collapse.
"The patient is going to collapse because there's no delivery of oxygen and glucose to tissues," Stewart said. "One of the most crucial organs that requires blood flow is the brain; immediately when there's no blood flow to the brain, the person is going to become unconscious."
Fortunately, you don't need to be a medical technician to help someone suffering from cardiac arrest, Stewart said.
CPR is among the most basic treatment techniques for cardiac arrest, with often successful outcomes, and helps keep a patient alive until emergency personnel can arrive, he said. When you perform CPR on someone, you are physically providing the pumping function of a nonfunctional heart, causing the heart's ventricles to eject blood into the vascular system to deliver blood to important organs like the brain and lungs, he said.
"It is easy," Stewart said, adding that formal training from an organization like the American Heart Association or Red Cross is recommended in order to perform CPR correctly. "It is something that people can easily be trained in a session."
Another useful tool, Stewart said, is the defibrillator, a device that can analyze the electrical activity of a heart and determine whether an electrical shock is needed to restore functionality. There had been a push even before Hamlin's cardiac arrest to place AEDs, or automated external defibrillators, in workplaces, schools, construction sites, sports venues and other public spots.
Stewart said he recommends that everyone — even children — learn how to perform CPR and use a defibrillator.
"There's a lot of value in somebody making an attempt to do something (to help a patient suffering from cardiac arrest) instead of just feeling helpless," he said.