Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest prompts pro leagues to protect young Minnesota athletes

Minnesota is one of 12 states not meeting three standards endorsed this week by the NCAA and major professional sports leagues for protecting high school athletes from sudden cardiac arrest.

An NFL-led coalition wrote Gov. Tim Walz, urging Minnesota to provide young athletes with the same protections that saved the life of Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin when he went into cardiac arrest Jan. 3 during a nationally televised football game.

“Young athletes deserve the same, and we think that’s achievable,” said Jeff Miller, executive vice president of the NFL, which formed the Smart Heart Sports Coalition along with the NBA, MLB, MLS, NHL and NCAA.

Miller said there are an estimated 23,000 sudden cardiac arrests involving people under the age of 18 in the United States each year, and about 40% occur during exercise.

Sudden cardiac deaths during high school games and practice in Minnesota are relatively uncommon; A University of Minnesota study identified four from 1993 to 2012 involving two cross-country runners, a wrestler, and a basketball player. No count of high school events includes fatalities like Patrick Schoonover, who died in 2014 at the age of 14 after collapsing during a club hockey game.

Sudden cardiac arrest, regardless of prevalence, is concerning in young athletes because it often occurs without warning compared to that in older adults with diagnosed heart problems, said Kim Harkins, program director for the US Centers for Resuscitation Medicine.

“In adolescents, and very often in athletes, it’s not until that event occurs that they don’t know they have an underlying medical condition,” she said. “The first sign is cardiac arrest.”

Minnesota has responded over the past decade by requiring one-time CPR training for public school students before graduation. The Minnesota State High School League also used Medtronic grant funds in 2015 to create an Anyone Can Save A Life program that taught basic lifesaving techniques that people could use in emergencies without being CPR certified.

The state league also advises schools on how to prepare contingency plans to respond to sudden cardiac arrests, and credited that preparation for saving a soccer umpire who collapsed during a game in Kimball, Minnesota, in 2019.

Stricter state requirements are recommended by the Korey Stringer Institute, a Connecticut sports safety group named for a Minnesota Viking who died of heat stroke while practicing preseason in 2001. The institute wants states to require that emergency plans be regularly reviewed and rehearsed, and provide details such as who will pick up defibrillators in emergencies and who will call 911.

Minnesota also doesn’t meet the institute’s recommendations that defibrillators be placed within one to three minutes of every high school play and practice venue and that all coaches must be certified in cardiac resuscitation. The institute, along with the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association, is part of the new coalition that sent letters to 43 governors in states that failed to meet one or more standards.

Some Minnesota school districts meet these criteria and have filed detailed contingency plans with the High School League, but a state requirement would ensure they stay current with training and equipment for these rare emergencies, Harkins said, “It’s really simple, it put on a backyard.”

A proximity requirement for defibrillators is also forcing schools to plan drills and games in off-campus locations or far from school buildings, she said. A defibrillator at Wayzata High School helped save soccer player Teddy Okerstrom after he collapsed while practicing outdoors in 2009, but with the help of a fast teammate who sprinted the device to the field. The high school added a defibrillator at a nearby location after the incident.

Michael Schoonover founded Play for Patrick to raise awareness and prevent sudden cardiac arrest following his son’s death. The organization has donated 17 defibrillators to area schools, trained 4,000 people in CPR and conducted 28 screenings, alerting parents to high blood pressure or possible heart defects in 300 children.

Schoonover has softened legislative demands for heart scans for all high school athletes due to the potential cost barriers and confusion over whether students with worrisome results are allowed to play.

The state should focus on stepping up its emergency response while research finds out whether universal heart screening for athletes makes sense, he said.

“That’s not going to happen anytime soon,” Schoonover said, “so this is the next best thing.”

The NFL committed $1 million to improve high school response efforts as part of this week’s announcement. The amount included $20,000 that the Vikings can use to support local relief efforts.


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