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Growing up, John Bush Jr. did boxing and played basketball and football. But on January 2, Bush was part of a relay team whose baton was Damar Hamlin’s life.
Bush, a Cincinnati native, has been a respiratory therapist on the Paycor Stadium emergency action team since its inception in 2018. The team is the result of an emergency action plan (EAP) that every NFL stadium must have in place in case of major trauma. . Although Bush has been on the sideline for every game since the NFL contracted with the Level 1 trauma center at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, he has never crossed the line onto the playing field during a game.
That all changed when Hamlin, a second-year safety with the Bills, suffered a cardiac arrest during a “Monday Night Football” game between the Bills and Bengals. Bush and the UC team rushed into action before millions watching at home and more than 65,000 hushed fans in the stands.
“The crowd wasn’t there at that moment, it was me, God and that kid,” Bush recalled nearly a year later. “I looked at him as if he were my son. He is 24 years old. I have a 22 year old daughter and a 29 year old son. My main goal is to bring him home to his mother.”
First, however, Bush had to perform a more important task. When he reached where Hamlin lay around midfield, Bush grabbed a blue Ambu bag, a self-inflating resuscitator for manual respiration, and squeezed it like a balloon, which breathed for Hamlin.
Bengals still feel long-term impact of Damar Hamlin game: ‘It’s always a trigger’
The Bills’ athletic trainers began the life-saving relay, with assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington first on the scene to administer CPR. Then came the UC team, with Bush and Dr. B. Woods Curry, was the designated co-lead in the stadium that night. Like Bush, Curry has been a part of this team since 2018.
An emergency medicine physician at UC Medical Center, Curry is a consultant for the Bengals’ EAP. Like the Bengals, the EAP team practices during the preseason and throughout the regular season, preparing themselves for every possible emergency on the field. There are at least seven physicians on the field for home games, including respiratory technicians like Bush, paramedics and at least two ambulance crews. The team has to be ready for anything.
“There are elements about this particular case that are a little bit different than any other particular case that we’ve done,” Curry said.
It took about half an hour from the time Hamlin collapsed to getting him into an ambulance. During that time, Kellington performed CPR, Bush used the Ambu bag and Curry intubated Hamlin. As the ambulance left, Curry stayed in case the game went on. Bush, however, rode with Hamlin.
In the half hour the medical team spent on the field with Hamlin, the trauma team at UC Medical Center was preparing for Hamlin to come in. This is the last part of the life-saving relay.
Dawn Schultz, an emergency room nurse, received a text from her husband, “You’re about to get busy.”
Schultz’s wife was watching on TV, as was Dr.’s wife. Valerie Sams, an emergency medicine physician and traumatic injury specialist. Sams’ wife sent a similar text to her husband, though she was dismayed to find out later that she was the third one Sams had received. Several co-workers at the game texted as the ambulance left the stadium to make the five-mile trip to the hospital.
Without traffic, that drive on I-71 can take as little as eight minutes. How long was that night?
“It seems like forever,” Sams said.
“It did,” Schultz said. “It feels like forever.”
But at that time Sams, Schultz and the rest of their team prepared to take the baton. The staff usually consists of an attending physician and three residents, nurses, respiratory therapists and medics. Ventilators, monitors and IVs were prepared and the X-ray department was alerted to an incoming patient. That’s just standard operating procedure, whether it’s an NFL player or a car accident victim. This is what happens in an ER every night.
“When that door opened and I saw a lot of physicians, I felt a sense of relief, a sense of satisfaction that we got him where he needed to be,” Bush said.
If Bush felt any relief in that moment, he was one of the few. The rest of the world wondered, worried and prayed for Hamlin. Outside the hospital, as the rain poured down, a crowd of well-wishers gathered. Some lit candles, others led in prayer. Everyone expected Hamlin to beat the odds. However, few expect him to return to Cincinnati this weekend as an active NFL player.
In the months since, Bush’s friends have had a better idea of what he was doing. So does the wider world.
Within a week of Hamlin’s injury, automated external defibrillator (AED) manufacturers sold off their stock in the United States. According to Curry, there is still a backlog of orders for the machines.
“In every single playing field in the United States of America, there should be an AEP and someone trained there to do bystander CPR and apply an AED immediately,” Curry said. “The National Football League has an amazing system. These fields are the safest place to play (the) sport in the world. But if we can make a high school football field safer because of this incident, that will be an amazing result that is even more than the amazing outcome achieved by Damar.
Hamlin’s Chasing Ms Foundation organizes a CPR Tour, providing thousands of CPR training sessions while providing AEDs for youth sports. Hamlin also helped introduce the Access to AEDs Act in the US House of Representatives.
UC Medical Center, has also expanded its CPR education program, reaching out into the community to teach people how to perform hands-only CPR as well as use AEDs.
About 16 hours after he collapsed, Hamlin woke up. Although still intubated, he was able to follow simple commands, moving his right finger and holding up his left thumb. That’s when everyone on the team started to feel better.
Curry said he couldn’t sleep until he got that call. Bush slept last night but woke up with tears because his heart was so heavy.
It wasn’t until that Friday night, four days after Hamlin collapsed on the field, that Bush saw him again in person. At the time, Hamlin was off the ventilator and his family joined him in the room. Bush recalled that when he shared how he had done Hamlin’s breathing for him, Hamlin smiled “from ear to ear.” The two then both felt their breasts, a symbol of their mutual respect and new partnership.
“That was a sense of relief,” Bush said. “And I got to hug his mom.”
The Bills and Hamlin return to Paycor Stadium Sunday night. On Saturday, Bush will join Hamlin, his family and many others at a steakhouse in downtown Cincinnati to celebrate.
(Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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