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Growing up, John Bush Jr. boxed and played basketball and football. But on Jan. 2, Bush was part of a relay team whose baton was the life of Damar Hamlin.
Bush, a Cincinnati native, has been a respiratory therapist on the Paycor Stadium emergency action team since its inception in 2018. The team is a result of the emergency action plan (EAP) that every NFL stadium is required to have in case of severe trauma. Although Bush has been on the sidelines for every game since the NFL contracted with the Level 1 trauma center at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, he’d never crossed the line onto the playing field during a game.
That all changed when Hamlin, a second-year safety with the Bills, suffered cardiac arrest during a “Monday Night Football” match between the Bills and Bengals. Bush and the UC team rushed in to act before millions watching at home and more than 65,000 hushed fans in the stands.
“The crowd didn’t exist at that moment, it was me, God and that kid,” Bush recalled nearly a year later. “I looked at him as if he was my child. He’s 24 years old. I have a 22-year-old daughter and a 29-year-old son. My main goal was to get him home to his mom.”
First, though, Bush had to perform a more essential task. As he got to where Hamlin was lying around midfield, Bush took the blue Ambu bag, a self-inflating resuscitator for manual respiration, and squeezed it like a balloon, which did the breathing for Hamlin.
Bengals still feel lasting effects of Damar Hamlin game: ‘It always triggers’
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, including Bush and Dr. B. Woods Curry, the designated co-lead at the stadium that night. Like Bush, Curry has been 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, along with respiratory technicians like Bush, paramedics and at least two ambulance crews. The team has to be ready for anything.
“There were elements about this particular case that were a little bit different than any particular case we ever practiced,” Curry said.
It took nearly a half hour from the moment Hamlin collapsed to the time he was loaded into the ambulance. During that span, Kellington performed CPR, Bush utilized the Ambu bag and Curry intubated Hamlin. As the ambulance drove off, Curry stayed behind in case the game resumed. Bush, though, rode along with Hamlin.
In the half hour that the medical team spent on the field with Hamlin, the trauma team at the UC Medical Center was preparing for Hamlin to come in. This was the final leg of the life-saving relay.
Dawn Schultz, an emergency room nurse, got a text from her husband, “You’re about to get busy.”
Schultz’s husband had been watching on TV, as was the husband of Dr. Valerie Sams, an emergency medicine physician and traumatic injury specialist. Sams’ husband sent a similar text to his wife, although he was sad to learn later that his was the third that Sams received. Several coworkers at the game texted when the ambulance left the stadium to make the five-mile trip to the hospital.
With no traffic, that drive up I-71 can take as little as eight minutes. How long did it take that night?
“It felt like an eternity,” Sams said.
“It did,” Schultz said. “It felt like forever.”
But that time is when Sams, Schultz and the rest of their team prepared to take the baton. The personnel usually consists of an attending physician and three residents, nurses, respiratory therapists and medics. Ventilators, monitors and IVs are readied and the X-ray department is alerted to an incoming patient. That’s just standard operating procedure, whether it’s an NFL player or the victim of a car accident. It’s what happens in an ER every night.
“When that door opened and I saw a multitude of physicians, I felt a comfort, a satisfaction that we got him where he needed to be,” Bush said.
If Bush felt comfort in that moment, he was one of the few. The rest of the world wondered, worried and prayed for Hamlin. Outside the hospital, as rain started to fall, a crowd of well-wishers gathered. Some lit candles, others led prayers. All hoped that Hamlin would beat the odds. Few, though, expected him to return to Cincinnati this weekend as an active NFL player.
In the months since, Bush’s friends have a better idea of what he does. So does the wider world.
Within a week of Hamlin’s injury, manufacturers of automated external defibrillators (AEDs) sold out of their stock in the United States. According to Curry, there’s still a backlog of orders for the machines.
“At every single field of play in the United States of America, there should be an AEP and someone there trained to do bystander CPR and apply the AED immediately,” Curry said. “The National Football League has an amazing system. These fields are the safest places to play (the) sport in the world. But if we can make a high school football field safer because of this incident, that would be an amazing outcome beyond the amazing outcome that Damar has had.”
Hamlin’s Chasing Ms Foundation organized a CPR Tour, giving thousands of CPR training sessions while providing AEDs for youth sports. Hamlin also helped introduce the Access to AEDs Act in the U.S. House of Representatives.
UC Medical Center, too, has expanded its CPR education program, reaching into the community to teach people how to do hands-only CPR as well as use AEDs.
It was sometime around 16 hours after he collapsed that Hamlin woke up. Although still intubated, he was able to follow simple commands, wiggling his right toes and raising his left thumb. It was then that everyone on the team started feeling better.
Curry said he wasn’t able to sleep until he got that call. Bush had slept the night before 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 was able to see him again in person. By that time, Hamlin was off the ventilator and his family joined him in the room. Bush recalled that when he shared how he’d done Hamlin’s breathing for him, Hamlin smiled “from ear to ear.” The two then both pounded their chests, a symbol of their mutual respect and new bond.
“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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