DC doctor on signs to watch for during a workout to assess heart health

Heart health is front and center after millions watched Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin collapse on the field Monday from apparent cardiac arrest. Knowing CPR can be a lifesaving skill, but cardiologists say the rules of how to do CPR have changed since COVID-19.

When the NFL safety collapsed on the field, Dr. Charles Berul’s phone began pinging with questions and concerns from friends.

“People worry. ‘OK, well, I’m not as healthy as he is, you know, could it be more likely to happen to me?'” said the chief of cardiology at Children’s National Hospital.

Other concerns he heard, what should I do in an emergency? And he notes that the requirements for those giving CPR have changed since the pandemic.

“Recognizing that people are gonna be hesitant to do mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing for a stranger … the American Heart Association now recommends just hands-only CPR, so basically just doing chest compressions,” Berul said.

After calling 911 for help and sending someone nearby to find a defibrillator, interlace your fingers, and compress the victim’s chest 100 to 120 times a minute to the beat of “Staying Alive” by the BeeGees.

“It actually is much harder physically than you imagine. It’s much harder to do on a real-life person, particularly a big adult, than it is on the mannequins that people may have practiced on when they’ve taken the classes. You have to push hard in the middle of the sternum/breastbone with the palm of your hands,” Berul said. He suggests alternating with another adult to keep the compressions going until help arrives.

Hamlin’s very public health emergency has raised awareness of heart health, which Berul said is important for those who may not be paying attention to warning signs in their own bodies.

“Heart-related symptoms are pretty common. So lots of people get sharp chest pains here and there. Lots of people get some fluttering in their chest, or palpitations, and a fair number of people will faint. So if you get up too fast and get dizzy and faint, that’s not as worrisome. Any of those symptoms with exertion are more concerning,”  he said.

Anyone experiencing those symptoms, including a rapid heart rate that’s abnormal, as they are exercising should see a doctor as soon as possible.


Editor’s note: This article has been changed to reflect that the American Heart Association recommends compressing the victim’s chest 100 to 120 times a minute.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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