The Importance of Athletic Trainers: Damar Hamlin’s Injury

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin is alive today thanks to textbook-accurate response from athletic trainers and medical staff on the field.

athletic training in a lab setting

Athletic trainers and medical staff are crucial to all levels of sport

By now, you’ve heard about NFL football player Damar Hamlin, even if you didn’t see his frightening injury on live television. After tackling an opponent, the Buffalo Bill’s safety collapsed to the ground, suffering a cardiac arrest. 

On the field, the athletic trainers and medical personnel quickly recognized the seriousness of the situation and immediately performed CPR, including the use of an AED defibrillator, to try to revive Hamlin. Their quick actions are credited with saving his life, as he was rushed to the hospital and continues to recover.

We sat down with Larry Munger and DJ Gililland to discuss the amazing work that was on display by the Bills’ medical staff and how this injury could serve as a wake-up call for the importance of athletic trainers at all levels of sport. 

Munger and Gililland are Assistant Professors in the Masters of Athletic Training program of the TTUHSC School of Health Professions.

The Damar Hamlin Injury

Larry Munger, Ph.D.

Larry Munger, Ph.D.

Hamlin’s Buffalo Bills were taking on the Cincinnati Bengals when he made a routine tackle of Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. At first glance, the play did not seem overly violent, and Hamlin popped up immediately following the tackle. But three seconds later, he collapsed, laying motionless on the turf. 

“When a hit like that takes place, the first thing that came to my mind was a condition called Commotio Cortis,” Gililland begins. “That literally is the nanosecond between heartbeats. It’s just a complete electrical disruption.”

This was Gililland’s first theory upon seeing the injury, and he wasn’t alone. This condition fits because it can be assumed any underlying heart issues would have been caught by the NFL’s rigorous player vetting and testing. 

Munger points out that Hamlin’s tackle would be unusual for Commotio Cortis, as it is typically seen from hits at a smaller focal point. 

“It's usually a small projectile force. Either a foot, a punch, a baseball, hockey puck,” he explains. 
Whatever the root cause, which is still being investigated, Munger and Gililland agree that the response by athletic trainers and medical staff was perfectly executed toward saving Hamlin’s life.

The Treatment of Damar Hamlin

“One of the key things for the survival of Damar Hamlin was the fact that it was immediately recognized by the Bill's athletic training staff, and they went right into cardiac resuscitation,” Gililland says. 
“With cardiac arrest, the most important part is the AED, and that's considered part of the CPR process,” Munger explains. “CPR involves AED, chest compressions, rescue breathing, all those different components.”

Gililland and Munger agree that the quick use of the AED on Hamlin was integral to his survival. 
Both men have experienced administering life-saving measures and stress the importance of CPR training and recertification. 

“The first time I learned CPR was 30 years ago, and we always re-certify our students,” Gililland says. “Even though our CPR certification is good for two years, we always do annual trainings and mock simulations.” 

Gililland teaches a course in emergency care where life-saving cardiac care is taught in practice. 

“It’s really important to me that our students understand the importance of emergency action plans and how to implement them, how to write them, and how to work with the sports medicine team,” he says. 

What Can We Learn From Damar Hamlin’s Injury?

Munger and Gililland are each hopeful that the successful on-field treatment of Damar Hamlin will shine a light on the need for athletic trainers at all levels of sports, especially high school. 

“There's a significant gap between the haves and the have-nots,” Gililland says. “We've got to do a better job of educating school districts and school boards on the necessity of athletic trainers on staff. If you're going to have sports, then you need to have an athletic trainer present. If you can afford sports, you can afford an athletic trainer.” 

Munger hopes that high-profile incidents like Damar Hamlin’s will bring more recognition to athlete training as a profession, even though emergency care is a small part of the job. 

“It’s [emergency care] a super important part,” he says. “My belief is emergency care is one of the easier parts of our job just for the fact that it's not [likely] going to happen, that we have to be prepared for those situations.”

Just as athletic training is about far more than taping ankles, it’s about having emergency action plans, as well as considering the total health care of athletes. 

“You’re preparing these guys every day, being on the field all the time. Then when someone gets hurt, you help them recover from injury so they can be ready to play the next game. It's hard,” Munger says. “It takes a lot of work and takes a lot of practice that you need to put a lot of time into.” 

Thankfully, Hamlin was in the hands of a fantastic medical team that acted fast and let their training take over. Hamlin left the hospital after a week and is on his path to recovery. 

Hear Hamlin thank the Bill’s medical team by name as he provides a much-anticipated update on his status. 

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