(NewsNation) — Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin is in critical condition after suffering cardiac arrest during Monday night’s game in Cincinnati. The incident immediately resonated with heart health awareness advocates who say it’s a reminder that sudden cardiac arrest can happen to anyone, even active young people.
“This is a good time for people to ask: is their child’s school ready for a cardiac emergency, is their sports team ready for a cardiac emergency?” said Martha Lopez-Anderson, the executive director of Parent Heart Watch — a nonprofit focused on protecting children from sudden cardiac arrest.
The issue is deeply personal for Lopez-Anderson. In 2004, her seemingly healthy 10-year-old son collapsed on the sidewalk just one month after a routine checkup. He died of sudden cardiac arrest from a heart condition that had gone undetected.
“I was completely blindsided… I just couldn’t understand what was happening,” she said.
Since then, Lopez-Anderson has dedicated her life to sudden cardiac arrest awareness so that other families don’t have to face a similar tragedy.
Unlike a heart attack, which occurs when blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked, sudden cardiac arrest is the abrupt loss of heart function which is usually caused by an abnormal heart rhythm.
Although rare, each year approximately 2,000 young people in the U.S. die from sudden cardiac arrest, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Studies have shown the risk is higher among student athletes.
In fact, sudden cardiac arrest is the most common medical cause of death in athletes. Many of those incidents, particularly in younger athletes, are linked to inherited heart conditions that often go undiagnosed.
For that reason, Lopez-Anderson says education around early warning signs and pre-screening tools like electrocardiograms (ECGs or EKGs) are key to preventing deaths.
At least 15 states have passed laws requiring sudden cardiac arrest prevention training in youth sports, according to Parent Heart Watch.
Other states are considering legislation that would go a step further. New York lawmakers have introduced a bill that would require heart examinations for public school students and a statement on whether a student is fit to participate in athletic activities.
But early detection is just part of the prevention strategy, Lopez-Anderson said. Schools and other public places need to have equipment — and people who know how to use it — when an emergency does occur.
“Every single school in our country should be equipped with life-saving devices just like they’re equipped with fire extinguishers,” she said.
Research shows easy access to automated external defibrillators (AEDs) can save lives.
According to the American Heart Association, 90% of cardiac arrest victims who receive a shock from an AED in the first minute survive.
Lopez-Anderson pointed out that while some states require schools to carry AEDs, a lot of the time those mandates are unfunded and the devices aren’t properly maintained.
In a situation where seconds can be the difference between life and death, a lack of training or malfunctioning equipment can be lethal.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Hamlin remains in critical condition. If the Buffalo Bills’ safety pulls through, it will be due in large part to a rapid response by emergency personnel.
NewsNation will continue to provide updates on Hamlin’s condition as they become available.