By Jane M. Orient, M.D.
Millions of people saw Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin collapse on the football field on January 2. He was tackled, fell down, and at first stood up. Even to aficionados of the game, this looked no different from what usually happens throughout the game. But then his heart stopped, and he collapsed. At this moment, he is reportedly in critical condition despite vigorous CPR on the field. In all likelihood, his promising career is over.
There is an outpouring of sympathy for this young man and his family, suddenly struck by a terrible tragedy. And also a flood of social media posts from both sides of the political narrative: it must have been the COVID shot, or the “safe and effective” COVID shot had nothing to do with it.
People are learning from well-polished presentations about commotio cordis, an extremely rare event. A sudden impact to the chest throws the heart into a fatal rhythm disturbance. Classically, it occurs in young boys not wearing protective gear who get hit in the chest with a baseball or similar projectile traveling around 40 mph—not in older, well-protected football players. Still, Hamlin did get hit in the chest.
By now, people have noticed that a lot of athletes have been collapsing on the field, and a high percentage of them die. Many are not even engaged in contact sports. Sudden death when engaged in strenuous activity that triggers a surge of adrenalin is not new. Certain congenital heart conditions, such as hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, predispose to it, and aspiring athletes should be carefully screened for this. There are also several possibilities for which screening is not ordinarily done.
Is sudden death occurring more commonly, or is it just getting more attention?
One may also ask whether it is more common in persons who have had COVID shots. This is extremely hard to answer when almost all have gotten the shot because they are not allowed to play if they haven’t. Strenuous exertion in persons who get the shot or the placebo was not part of the clinical trials.
Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) has been recognized as an adverse side effect. It is said to be “rare and mild.” We do not know how many asymptomatic cases might be causing scarring in the heart that might predispose to rhythm problems—we don’t screen for it.
While people are genuinely sympathetic to Hamlin, they are also probably asking: what about me, or my husband, son, or brother? Or the NFL might be wondering what about the future of football? Or of the organizations that have mandated the shots? Are they protected from liability, as the manufacturers are? Under federal law, the shots are supposed to be voluntary, with informed consent about possible adverse effects.
And what should we do now? Hamlin’s family deserves a diagnosis. Everybody wishes him full recovery, but if he tragically die
s, he should have a forensic autopsy, looking for inflammation in the heart muscle and preserving tissue for tests such as immunohistologic staining that might become available later.
What about the other players? There should be automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) immediately available on the field. If we were serious about avoiding future tragedies in case the COVID shots just might play a role, one might consider the following:
- Suspend further injections until damage from the shots can be ruled out (some countries such as Denmark do not recommend compulsory shots in young men).
- Sideline players for two weeks if they do get an injection.
- Perform cardiac MRIs looking for scars in all players.
- Demand a study that screens a large population of vaccine recipients with cardiac enzymes (troponins), ultrasound, and MRI to check for inflammation.
Which, after all, is more important: the hearts of our people, or the profits of the vaccine purveyors? Instead of guessing, or siding with one narrative or the other, let’s get an answer to the question with objective study, using our most sophisticated diagnostic tools.