The lingering question in the wake of Damar Hamlin’s collapse and recovery is whether certain sports should mandate commotio cordis protective gear.
Rob Vito has built a reputation as a smooth salesman since he began making military-grade protective gear for athletes more than a decade ago.
He once had someone smash a Louisville Slugger across his chest to prove his confidence in one of his products.
He personally guaranteed that Michael Vick wouldn’t aggravate his bruised ribs while wearing a custom-fitted protective vest.
He often casually brings up that his company has outfitted everyone from Tom Cruise to Tony Romo to the Pope.
And yet for all Vito’s marketing savvy, it isn’t a catchy slogan or publicity stunt that did the most to elevate his company’s stature. Unequal Technologies attracted a horde of new customers the past few months because of Damar Hamlin’s near-fatal collapse during a Monday Night Football game last January.
When a national TV audience watched Hamlin go into sudden cardiac arrest on the field after making a seemingly routine tackle, viewers scrambled to better understand what happened to the Buffalo Bills safety. Medical experts quickly suggested that a lowered shoulder to the chest from Cincinnati Bengals receiver Tee Higgins may have caused Hamlin, 25, to experience a rare but often lethal heart disruption known as commotio cordis.
It was at that point, Vito says, that the threat of commotio cordis “became real” for the layperson. Parents who sought to protect their kids from what happened to Hamlin hunted for gear created to reduce the risk of commotio cordis and purchased chest protectors and padded shirts from Unequal and other manufacturers. Several NFL team owners even contacted Vito to learn more.
“Our sales went up about 800% almost overnight,” Vito told Yahoo Sports. “We were running to UPS and FedEx in the afternoons until about 8 p.m. at night. It was nonstop around the clock six, seven days a week trying to get all the product out to satisfy the need.”
Last week, Hamlin confirmed for the first time that commotio cordis indeed was what caused his heart to stop beating. He’s only alive and functioning normally today because medical personnel on site were able to administer CPR to restore the flow of blood to his vital organs before using an automatic external defibrillator to shock his heart back into rhythm.
Hamlin’s story has shined a spotlight on a condition that is among the most common causes of sudden cardiac death in competitive sports. Cardiologists say that approximately 10 to 20 cases occur annually and that teenage boys are the most vulnerable. Commotio cordis is seen most often in baseball, lacrosse and hockey, all sports where it’s common for an athlete to take a solid hard ball to the chest. In other sports, commotio cordis can be triggered by the impact of an elbow, fist or helmet.
While the prompt and effective response of the Bills medical staff saved Hamlin, most athletes don’t have access to the NFL’s vast resources and well-drilled emergency personnel. It raises the question whether commotio cordis protective gear should be more prevalent — or even required — in certain sports.
“If there’s something out there that can protect our kids from dying of sudden cardiac arrest, why aren’t we using it?” said Maureen Legg of Parent Heart Watch. “We have the tools we need to start saving lives. We just need to use them.”
The debate: Should chest protectors be mandatory?
The fight to protect young athletes from commotio cordis is especially personal for Karen Acompora. That’s why she’s pleased that the phenomenon has been in the national limelight for the past few months because of Hamlin. And that’s why she seethes whenever a writer or TV analyst refers to commotio cordis as “extremely rare.”
“When you write that, a parent looks at it like, ‘I don’t even have to think about that. It’s never going to happen to me,” Acompora said. “But it happened to me. My child died from that. And if it happened to me, it could happen to you.”