Damar Hamlin cardiac arrest sparks stories of cardiac deaths among young Central Florida athletes

Bills’ Hamlin still in critical condition after cardiac arrest

ORLANDO, Fla. – The shock and disbelief after 24-year-old Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field during Monday night’s Bills vs. Bengals game was all too familiar for Ralph Maccarone.

“Actually, I had flashbacks of what happened with our son, Rafe, 15 years ago,” Maccarone said.

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The father, who now lives in Colorado, lost his son Rafe when he suffered sudden cardiac arrest at soccer practice in Cocoa Beach in 2007.

“I’ll never forget the phone call that I received from Rafe’s coach that he had dropped on the field, and I just assumed it was heat stroke or, you know, he just passed out. And there was just silence on the other end of the phone,” Maccarone said. “They performed CPR — a teammate and also a coach. There wasn’t an AED available to start his heart.”

What Maccarone and his family didn’t know at the time was Rafe had a deadly undetected heart condition. They also didn’t know the impact his story would have.

“The really sad thing is I get these stories every single day,” Shawn Sima said.

Shawn Sima’s daughter Lexi collapsed on a treadmill at the gym in 2016. At the time, she was a student in Viera getting ready for cheerleading try outs.

“Thankfully, there was somebody running behind her who had just taken CPR because his job had required him too. The AED that was hanging on the gym wall had just had the battery and pads changed out,” Sima said.

Sima said his daughter is alive today because of the quick response and resources, both critical when a life is on the line.

“If someone drops dead of sudden cardiac arrest, what you need to do immediately is call 911, start CPR, and find an AED because this is the only shot they have of surviving,” Evan Ernst said.

Ernst is the director of “Who We Play For,” an organization dedicated to raising awareness for preventable sudden cardiac deaths in young athletes.

“We’ve helped pass 26 laws across the country, from ECG screenings, to CPR, to AEDs, to action plans, and we’ve been able to save over 200 kids,” Ernst said.

The mission, inspired by Rafe Maccarone’s story, is just as meaningful 15 years later.

“These boys just made a commitment that they weren’t going to let another family go through this,” Maccarone said. “They have carried his legacy on and it lives in the students’ lives that we save.”

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About the Author:

Catherine, born and raised in Central Florida, joined News 6 in April 2022.