Opinion: Damar Hamlin and the human body’s daily miracles

A fan displays a sign for Damar Hamlin #3 of the Buffalo Bills during a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants.

A fan displays a sign for Damar Hamlin #3 of the Buffalo Bills during a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants.

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The cardiac arrest of 26-year-old Buffalo Bills’ player Damar Hamlin on the football field in front of a national television audience the first week of 2023 reminded me of my long-forgotten brush with an unexpected lung-deflating hit to my chest.

Damar Hamlin lucked out with the immediate CPR he received. I lucked out with a 3-foot-wide strip of grass which cushioned my heart and lungs and bones.

It was 1977. I was a 32-year-old graduate student and was speeding down Canner Street hill toward Whitney Avenue on my racing bike with my textbooks under one arm and my other hand, the free hand, on the handlebars.

The light was yellow and two lanes of stopped traffic were to my right and left on Whitney as I sped from Canner Street’s steep downward hill into the intersection, trying to beat the yellow light.

I exhaled relief as I crossed the middle of the intersection knowing I had made it before the traffic light turned red. Victory.

Suddenly my front wheel turned perpendicular to the rest of my bike and locked dead in the middle of the intersection and the seat and rear wheel of my bike reared up and jettisoned me into the air as my books flew in the other direction.

My front wheel had hit a pebble in the middle of the intersection of four lanes of stopped traffic, drivers gasping with disbelief as I became a human missile.

My one free hand had not been enough to control the handlebars and the front wheel underneath them.

All I could see as I flew through the air were four lanes of asphalt, a cement sidewalk, a telephone pole and a metal street sign pole in front of me. But I could also see the horror of shredded skin and broken bones — even broken neck and concussion — seconds away in my future.

I instinctively put both my arms under my chest to cushion my landing as I flew through the air.

And before I knew it I had hit the ground and miraculously had landed on a tiny 3-foot grass berm between the curb stone and sidewalk that I hadn’t even noticed as a human rocket.

It wouldn’t have mattered if I had noticed the grassy berm because I didn’t have wings and couldn’t have aimed my body to land in a particular direction even if I had wanted to.

My bike lay dead in the middle of Whitney Avenue with four lanes of traffic frozen and drivers gasping in disbelief at the human flesh and blood rocket hurtling in air in front of their eyes.

In an instant my books were scattered all over the asphalt and I lay gasping face down on the grass berm with my arms under my chest.

Drivers jumped out of their cars and ran to my aid.

“Are you OK?” they shouted as they ran in my direction.

I somehow managed to stand up but when I tried to answer their concern, my voice wouldn’t work. I tried two or three times but there was no air back yet in my lungs.

Apparently my arms under my chest had protected me, yes, but landing on them with my 200-pound, 6-foot body had expelled all the air from my lungs like a bellows clapped shut, hence my inability to speak.

It took a moment but I sucked breath back into my lungs and recovered my speech.

Someone had collected my books and bike and as drivers got back in their cars, I was able to wheel it by hand the two blocks to 146 Everit St., where I was serving as an apartment superintendent while attending Yale as a divinity student.

Damar Hamlin’s hit affected his heart. My hit affected my lungs.

What a precious self-sustaining balancing act the human body performs thousands of times a day, with every breath we take.

Paul Keane is a retired Vermont English teacher who grew up in New Haven and Hamden.