Damar Hamlin and the Freedom House Ambulance Service

On Monday, Jan. 2, National Football League fans in Pittsburgh and around the world witnessed a traumatic event unfold before their eyes during ESPN’s Monday Night Football telecast of the Buffalo Bills vs. Cincinnati Bengals game. 

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, a McKees Rocks native and a graduate of Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic High School and the University of Pittsburgh, suffered a cardiac arrest after a collision with Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins. Hamlin, a staunch pass defender, collapsed after making a hard tackle in the first quarter. Almost immediately, players on and off the field realized Hamlin was having a significant medical episode. Athletic trainers and emergency medical staff immediately assessed the seriousness of the situation and began efforts to revive him. They used two methods of emergency medicine to restore his breathing and restart his heart – CPR and a defibrillator.

It is only coincidental that Hamlin would need these two specific emergency treatments to save his life – and that those treatments were developed and advanced in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

Image: Defibrillator used by Freedom House Ambulance Service, c. 1967. Freedom House paramedics became the first to gather data using tools such as this and transmit it to the hospital over the radio while in transit. Gift of Roy E. Cox.

The Freedom House Ambulance Service transformed the way medical institutions treated patients before they were transported to hospitals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It became the nation’s first community-based emergency medical service with trained paramedics, breaking medical ground by training its personnel to previously unheard-of standards. Decades later, it appears the Hamlin case followed the same script developed by Freedom House to stabilize him on the field and safely transport him to the hospital.

Image: Group shot of employees of the Freedom House Ambulance Service, c. 1970s. Photograph by Jim Spiegel, Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.

CPR, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation, was developed by Dr. Peter Safar, one of the founders of the Freedom House service. Safar and Dr. Nancy Caroline trained Hill District residents in ambulance paramedics, later called EMTs, and helped develop the Freedom House service that was connected to Presbyterian and Mercy hospitals. This technique of reviving oxygen and breathing to the lungs, and restarting the heart was not a common practice in emergency medicine before Freedom House came along. Safar wanted to treat emergency medical issues on the spot before transport to hospitals. Before this procedure, medical emergencies in African American communities were largely transported by local police, funeral homes, or private drivers and it put patient’s lives in jeopardy.

Image: Resusci-Baby and tools of resuscitation. This model was used to train Freedom House ambulance paramedics and others by Dr. Peter Safar.

The emergency medical personnel that treated Damar Hamlin could thank Dr. Safar, Dr. Caroline, and the Freedom House Ambulance Service for creating the procedure for emergency medical treatment more than 50 years ago. Hamlin went to high school and college within a few miles of where the treatment that revived him was developed.

About the Author

Samuel W Black is the director of the Heinz History Center’s African American Program.

Date February 6, 2023
  • Samuel W Black