When Damar Hamlin's heart stopped during an NFL game this week, ESPN cut to a commercial. One of the most dramatic events in football history unfolded in the six minutes after Hamlin collapsed and the situation was deemed unsuitable for viewers.
This is worth a replay. Our societal aversion to death is one reason that we fail to save thousands of sudden cardiac arrest victims every year.
As I wrote in USA Today nearly 20 years ago (https://khn.org/morning-breakout/dr00019077/), science shows that Hamlin had just six minutes to live when he collapsed in need of chest compressions and a shock from a defibrillator. This dire medical emergency strikes 1,000 people every day in public places like football stadiums, gyms and shopping malls -- and in homes.
Recognition is everything.
When a victim is lucky enough to be near people who witness the collapse, they are extremely lucky when those "bystanders" recognize the urgent need for CPR and an Automated External Defibrillator (AED). Tragically, people often don't get it so they dial 911 then stand around looking at each other anxiously until rescue crews arrive.
If you saw Hamlin collapse, you now know what sudden cardiac arrest looks like. It looks like fainting. The person drops, they may gasp a few times for more air, then they are still -- lifeless.
Had ESPN been able to provide play-by-play commentary, the public would have seen how simple it is to save a life. How pushing on the chest was moving blood. How the pads applied to the chest would determine if a shock was needed. Then, as everyone was told to "clear" and not touch Hamlin, how the simple push of a button delivered the only thing in the world that could return him to a normal life -- a defibrillator shock.
The players and others who gathered around Hamlin got a good view of the simple life-saving steps that are often performed by flight attendants, gym employees and high school students. You can find smiling faces of survivors here on this website and on the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation’s social media pages.
But, more importantly -- more urgently -- thousands of others are not saved. The first hurdle to survival is recognition and now that you have seen Hamlin’s collapse, you've got that covered! When somebody drops, you will know it could be a sudden cardiac arrest.
So are you ready to act? Need a CPR refresher? Want to practice using an AED? It's never been easier. Ask a teenager.
If you are betting you will never witness a cardiac arrest, you can also save lives by becoming an SCA activist. Push a little. Deliver a few jolts to your local system. Find out how well your local Emergency Medical Services are performing in this area. The cities that save the most lives measure their performance and proudly tell the public how local tax dollars are being spent to save people like Hamlin.
Sadly, however, survival is still a matter of geography. Twenty years later, you are still much safer in Seattle than in Washington, D.C., for example. The cities with the greatest will to act save the most lives.
As we pan the camera across the nation considering how thousands of vibrant people like Hamlin are needlessly lost to SCA, I go back to our collective discomfort with death.
Are we willing to look directly at what matters? Must we cut to commercial or other distractions when things suddenly get real -- life-and-death real? Isn't this when we need to work through our discomfort and face the truth? If we won't face the facts, how can we be prepared to help others? How can we help our own self? Are we being true to our own soul?
The local rescuers who came to the aid of Hamlin didn't know the stranger on the visiting team. They just knew he was one of us -- a human. Life is lived in the current moment; right here between each beat of our heart. What are we willing to do now to save the next person who has just six minutes to live or die?
Bob Davis is a former SCA Board member