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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 Damar Hamlin’s life.
Bush, a Cincinnati resident, has been a respiratory therapist on the Paycor Stadium Emergency Response Team since its inception in 2018. The team is an outgrowth of the Emergency Action Plan (EAP) that every NFL stadium is required to have in place in the event of a serious injury. Although Bush has been on the sideline for every game since the NFL agreed to the Level 1 trauma center at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, he had never crossed the line on the field during a game.
That all changed when Hamlin, a second-year safety with the Bills, went into cardiac arrest during a “Monday Night Football” game between the Bills and Bengals. Bush and the UC team jumped into action before millions watching at home and more than 65,000 silent fans in the stands.
“The crowd wasn’t there at the time, it was me, God and that kid,” Bush recalled nearly a year later. “I looked at him like he was my child. He is 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.”
But first, Bush had a more substantial task to perform. As he reached where Hamlin was around the midline, Busch took the blue Ambu bag, a self-inflating respirator for manual breathing, and squeezed it like a balloon, which made Hamlin’s breathing.
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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, his designated co-headliner at the stadium that night. Like Bush, Curry has been a member 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 doctors on the field for home games, along with respiratory technicians like Bush, paramedics and at least two ambulance crews. The team must be ready for anything.
“There were elements about this particular case that were a little bit different than any particular case we’ve ever tried,” Curry said.
It took nearly half an hour from the time Hamlin collapsed to the time he was loaded into the ambulance. During this time, Kellington performed CPR, Bush used the Ambu bag, and Curry intubated Hamlin. As the ambulance left, Curry stayed behind in case the game resumed. But Busch drove 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 enter. This was the last leg of the lifesaving relay.
Dawn Schultz, an emergency room nurse, received a text from her husband, “You’re about to get busy.”
Schultz’s husband was watching on television, as was Dr. Valerie Shams, an emergency physician and trauma specialist. Shams’ husband sent a similar message to his wife, though he was saddened to learn later that it was the third Shams had received. Several teammates at the game texted as the ambulance left the field to make the five-mile trip to the hospital.
Without traffic, this drive on I-71 can take as little as eight minutes. How long did it take that night?
“It felt like an eternity,” Shams said.
“He did,” Schultz said. “It felt like forever.”
But that’s when Shams, Schultz and the rest of their team got ready to take over. The staff usually consists of an attending physician and three residents, nurses, respiratory therapists and physicians. Ventilators, monitors and IVs are ready and the x-ray department is alerted to an incoming patient. That’s just standard operating procedure, whether it’s an NFL player or a car accident victim. It’s what happens in an ER every night.
“When that door opened and I saw a lot of doctors, I felt a comfort, a satisfaction that we got him where he needed to be,” Bush said.
If Bush felt comfortable at the time, he was one of the few. The rest of the world wondered, worried and prayed for Hamlin. Outside the hospital, as rain began to fall, a crowd of well-wishers gathered. Some lit candles, others said prayers. Everyone hoped Hamlin would beat the odds. Few, however, expected him to return to Cincinnati this weekend as an active NFL player.
In the months that have passed, Bush’s friends have a better idea of what he’s up to. So does the wider world.
Within a week of Hamlin’s injury, manufacturers of automated external defibrillators (AEDs) ran out of stock in the United States. According to Curry, there is still a backlog of orders for the machines.
“In every ballpark in the United States of America, there should be an AEP and someone there trained to perform bystander CPR and immediately apply the AED,” Curry said. “The National Football League has an amazing system. These courts 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 result beyond the amazing result that Damar 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 US House of Representatives.
UC Medical Center also has expanded its CPR training program, reaching out into the community to teach people how to perform CPR themselves as well as use AEDs.
It was about 16 hours after the collapse that Hamlin woke up. Although he was still intubated, he was able to follow simple commands, wiggling his right toes 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 phone call. Bush had slept the night before, but woke up in tears because his heart was so heavy.
It wasn’t until that Friday night, four days after Hamlin collapsed on the field, that Busch was able to see him in person again. By this time, Hamlin was off the ventilator and his family joined him in the room. Busch recalled that when he shared how Hamlin’s breath worked for him, Hamlin smiled “from ear to ear.” The two then slapped 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 on Sunday night. On Saturday, Busch 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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