GLENDALE, Ariz. – Dr. Allen Sills knew the moment that Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field last month during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals that something serious and potentially life-threatening had happened.
“My next reaction,” Sills said, “was tremendous confidence in the people that are there.”
In a matter of seconds, medical personnel from both sides rushed toward Hamlin, who had gone into cardiac arrest as thousands of fans watched in the stadium and millions more watched on television. They began to administer CPR, working feverishly to resuscitate him, before loading Hamlin into an ambulance and taking him to a hospital.
“I know the medical staffs of both of those teams and our medical staffs have trained for exactly that moment,” said Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer. “So you default to that training, and you're looking for a series of steps to occur, and those steps did occur. And you just hope and pray the body will respond and that you have a great outcome.”
The 24-year-old Hamlin was hospitalized for more than a week, and while his road back continues, the fact that he was able to travel to Phoenix to accept a community service award this week speaks volumes about his recovery.
It also speaks to the preparation the NFL demands of its medical personnel.
"They key is just the preparation that starts well before game day," said Sills, who provided a tour Thursday of the medical facilities available at State Farm Stadium, where the Chiefs will play the Eagles in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
“Every team has an emergency action plan that they write for their training facility and their stadium,” Sills said, "and it covers all of the expected emergencies that could occur: who’s going to do what, what equipment we need. And then that gets practiced, just like our players have a playbook and they practice. We practice that emergency action plan.
“We never want one of those situations to occur, but if it does, its something that we've planned and prepared for.”
Chiefs president Mark Donovan was watching the Bills-Bengals game on TV when Hamlin went down, and the first thing he did was text his team's trainer, Rick Burkholder. They discussed their own plan that night, and afterward, they went through their facility and ensured everyone was prepared for an emergency.
“Rick was very complimentary of Buffalo's staff. That is exactly what they were trained to do, and the person who saw it happen diagnosed it immediately,” Donovan told The Associated Press. “The most experienced, highest-level-of-expertise people in Cincinnati to deal with that were not in hospitals that night; they were on the sideline.”
Sills said about 30 medical professionals are at each NFL game, whether it be a run-of-the-mill preseason game played largely by backups and no-hopers, an international game where facilities might be different than those in the U.S., or the Super Bowl, for which a television audience of more than 200 million people is expected Sunday.
Some are team trainers. Others are specialists, such as those trained to diagnose and treat airway issues. And still others are independent experts, such as the neurologists trained to identify concussions during games.
Indeed, head injuries remain an important and controversial topic for the league.
The NFL announced last week that concussions increased by 18% during the regular season, which Commissioner Roger Goodell attributed to updated diagnostic measures. But some very visible cases, including that of Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, forced the league to once more revise its protocols midway through the season.
Tagovailoa took a scary hit during a September game against Buffalo but was allowed to continue playing, then took another hard hit four days later against Cincinnati, when he was taken off an a stretcher and diagnosed with a concussion. Tagovailoa missed two games before returning to the field, only to sustain another concussion against Green Bay in December.
The NFL now states that any player showing concussion symptoms must sit out the remainder of the game.
“I think we've made great strides in the area of concussion, both in our ability and understanding how to diagnose and in safely returning players,” Sills said, "but our focus is really on prevention, and not only concussions but head impacts.
“We've got technology to actually be able to quantify that,” Sills said. "We can count how many helmet impacts for each player. We'll be sharing that information with coaches, with players, teams, so that we can act against it. And make no mistake, our goal is very simple: We want to see the number of impacts go down.”
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