Damar Hamlin visits St. Louis Children’s Hospital patients

Damar Hamlin at St. Louis Children's Hospital

Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin (left) talks with the nephews of Kenzie Spangler on her phone Wednesday. Spangler was visiting a heart patient at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

One heart emergency played out for a national TV audience to witness, the other behind closed doors in St. Louis for the past 17 years along with so many other untold tales of pediatric cardiovascular conditions.

Damar Hamlin didn’t have any concerns until January 2023, when he suffered cardiac arrest after trying to make a tackle for the Buffalo Bills and being struck in the chest by an opponent’s helmet.

This offseason, Hamlin is traveling to hospitals to visit children with disorders, including a stop Wednesday at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

He is involved with the Abbott Heartmates Program, a group formed to provide people with heart conditions a community of support from those with similar challenges. Among those he met Wednesday was Jayden Williams, 17, who has dealt with a condition called tetralogy of Fallot since birth.

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“We’re creating a community of people and a safe space where you can go to talk about the different experiences you’ve had,” Hamlin told a gathering of patients and their families before visiting children in their rooms. “It may be a long journey to deal with, especially when you go to school and have no one who can relate to you or understand the things you go through. It’s something we experience from my size to babies. We’re creating a team, letting each other know we’re in this together.”

Hamlin returned to the Bills last season and will continue to play after his well-documented incident that was caused by blunt force trauma to his chest at an exact moment during his heartbeat that cause an arrhythmia.

His story and personality have made him an unexpected ally to those with conditions that might be dissimilar but who can benefit from encouragement.

Williams was the oldest of numerous heart patients who were on hand to meet Hamlin. He said his condition has been a lifelong issue.

“As a kid, I never felt I could just do other things that kids could do,” Williams said. “Sometimes I even had to get heart surgeries. Seeing an NFL player who has experienced something related to mine and doing what he loves every day is the best. I felt like I was talking to a person like me. It’s not often I see people like myself with heart disease of any kind, really.”

On the day Hamlin visited, Children’s Hospital had an overflow of 28 pediatric heart patients for its 26 beds. An official said the hospital has treated ages newborn to 42.

Damar Hamlin at St. Louis Children's Hospital

Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin signs balls for children Wednesday at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

The NFL player did not have an issue until he was an adult but is spending time connecting with younger patients. He distributed footballs he signed and shared videos from his recent trip to Cannes and Paris, France, for fashion week.

He was as interested in asking questions of the kids as much as he was discussing his situation. It was a chance to share optimism.

“I’m in the NFL and can’t really turn left or right and have anyone who can relate to my situation,” he said. “It’s not a road that a lot have traveled in my space. My situation was the first to ever happen in the history of the NFL. … I’m on a road alone, so (it’s good) to be able to have a different team with people who understand and can share their experience. I can learn and share my experience and have people learn from me.”

Hamlin has been in the NFL for three seasons after his college career at Pittsburgh. He was playing in his 15th game of the 2022 season — his 13th as a starter — when he was hit, stood up and then collapsed on “Monday Night Football” against the Cincinnati Bengals. He returned to play sparingly in five games last season and will return to the Bills in 2024.

He told families he needed a few months to reach a point of trusting his body and at times it “still feels like I’m recovering.”

He was asked to be the first ambassador for the Heartmates program when it was launched in November. He encouraged the young patients to lean on others and offer thanks to their supporters, including nurses, family members and friends.

Williams started by thanking Hamlin for the visit and signed ball.

“I’m going to get a case for it,” Williams said. “And I’m definitely going to show it off. No hesitation.”

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