On the second day of 2023, diehard Buffalo Bills fans Kevin and Candace Brazinski sat down to their team play the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football.
It had been a strong season for the Bills, who were vying for the top seed in the AFC as the regular season neared its conclusion. That night's game would likely be a deciding factor in the race between the Bills, the Bengals and the Kansas City Chiefs for the chance to host the AFC Championship, should they make it that far, for the first time since 1994.
The game, which many had dubbed the biggest of the season thus far, would never be completed.
By this point, we all know the story. Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed after absorbing contact from Bengals receiver Tee Higgins and the nationally televised game came to a stop as millions across the country watched as the Bills training staff and medical personnel from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center worked to save Hamlin's life.
"I said, 'Oh my god, he died,'" said Kevin Brazinski, who watched with bated breath with the rest of the world as Hamlin laid on the field in Paycor Stadium.
Without CPR and the use of an AED, Kevin's initial fear that Hamlin had passed would have come true. Thanks to the heroic actions and quick reaction time of the Bills training staff and the doctors at the UC Medical Center, Hamlin made his official return to an NFL game Oct. 1 against the Miami Dolphins, almost as if nothing happened.
As they stayed updated on Hamlin's health, Kevin and Candace's life continued. They celebrated Hamlin's recovery as the winter calmed down and slowly transitioned to spring.
On Easter, the Brazinski family held their annual adult Easter "egg" hunt, with Candace's mother hiding beer cans around her backyard for the adults of the family to find.
As Kevin poked around his mother-in-law's backyard, he collapsed face down on the grass.
"I turned around and he was on the ground," Candace recalled. "I'm like, my husband doesn't joke around like that. So, I ran over and I immediately flipped him over. His eyes were wide open and nothing was there, so obviously I went into panic mode."
Kevin, just like Hamlin had months before, had gone into cardiac arrest. Within minutes of inaction, he would have suffered severe permanent brain damage or death.
Luckily, as the Bills training staff had been for Hamlin, there were people around Kevin who were prepared for the situation, who were prepared to save his life.
"My brother just came over and just hip checked me right out of the way and started compressions and that's when my sister came over and started trying to remove my husband's shirt and everything like that and then my brother's girlfriend Janine was there as well, so she was kind of directing everyone too because she's in the medical field. And then my mom was the one that was on the phone with 9-1-1 and kind of directing all that and keeping 9-1-1 updated with what was going on," Candace said.
Amidst the chaos of a completely unexpected medical episode, the actions of Candace's brother Mike, a physical therapist, her sister Erin, a newly graduated registered nurse, Mike's girlfriend Janine, a nurse practitioner, and Candace's mother Joyce, a registered nurse who called 9-1-1, saved Kevin's life and kept his brain safe from any damage caused by a lack of oxygen.
Mike hadn't performed CPR since medical school, and had actually signed up for a CPR class for the following week. After Kevin made it to the hospital and was responsive, Mike texted in a group chat: "I'm CPR certified!"
Before the Buffalo Bills take on the New York Giants Sunday evening, the Brazinski family and the Buffalo Bills medical team will be honored in Highmark Stadium with the Heartsaver Hero Award from the American Heart Association for the heroic actions displayed in the treatment of both Kevin Brazinski and Damar Hamlin, two men who will step onto the field at Highmark Stadium just months after suffering cardiac arrest and surviving.
Scroll to see photos from Damar Hamlin's Chasing M's Back to School Drive at Front Park.
Cardiac arrest can happen to anyone. For Hamlin, it was a freak accident called commotio cordis, an extremely rare consequence of a blow to the chest at the exact wrong time in the heartbeat. For Kevin, he needed his aortic valve to be replaced. In total, cardiac arrest kills 300,000 to 450,000 people in the United States, often because people are unaware of how to diagnose and save someone whose heart is failing them.
Hands-only CPR is the reason Kevin and Hamlin are still alive and fully healthy, and it is an incredibly simple action to learn.
On Thursday, the Buffalo Bills Women's Association hosted the American Heart Association and learned how to perform hands-only CPR on both adults and infants.
Representatives from the AHA explained the importance of noticing whether someone is unresponsive, checking for breath and immediately performing quick and quality chest compressions while waiting for an AED, paramedics, or both to arrive.
"We all witnessed the importance of jumping in to do CPR on Monday Night Football, and it can happen anywhere," Jamie McDermott said after the event. "I feel more prepared now, should the need arise. I'm so very thankful to the American Heart Association for partnering with the Bills to provide hands-only CPR training for us."
Kevin, who learned how to do CPR himself after recovering, also emphasized the importance of learning how to do chest compressions.
"If you could just do the compressions and just do the hands only, that person is at least going to have a chance, over not doing anything or calling 9-1-1 and waiting for an EMT," Kevin said. "The only reason I'm here is how quickly my family reacted in getting things going. That's the only reason I'm here."
AEDs, or automated external defibrillators, are another vital tool that can save someone experiencing cardiac arrest. Police arrived on scene before paramedics arrived with an AED, which was used to analyze Kevin's heart rhythm and deliver an electric shock to restore his heartbeat.
The Buffalo Bills and Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield partnered to donate 15 AEDs to community organizations in the Western New York area in an effort to enhance CPR and AED awareness and education throughout the region.
The AHA recommends anyone to locate the nearest AED whenever entering a new building or space. The Smart Hearts Sports Coalition, which was founded after Hamlin's cardiac arrest, seeks to encourage all 50 states to adopt policies to prevent fatalities from cardiac arrest among high school students and in school communities by installing clearly marked AEDs at each game or practice venue and require coaches to be trained in CPR and AED use.
A few months after suffering cardiac arrest, Kevin and his family drove to St. John Fisher University to watch the Bills practice during training camp. Recovery had proved a challenge for Kevin at times, mostly because he grew tired of remaining at home without being able to occupy his time with tasks that had been menial only weeks earlier.
"So we have cameras at home and one day I was at work and I looked at the cameras and he was going to get the weed whacker and I came through on the camera and started yelling at him," Candace said.
Now, Kevin was back on his feet, standing in the hot summer sun wearing a Buffalo Bills bucket hat and a t-shirt which read "CPR Saves Lives! 2023 Cardiac Arrest Survivor."
Standing in the presence of Damar Hamlin, one of the few men in America who can identify with the terrifying experience that Kevin had overcome, tears welled in Kevin's eyes as he thought about the path that had led him to St. John Fisher.
After practice was over, Kevin and Candace's daughter was unsuccessful in obtaining any autographs from the players. In a sea of kids screaming for the attention of their heroes, not everyone is lucky enough to come away with a coveted signature.
Aria, age seven, sat on the bleachers crying. As her parents consoled her, telling her that they would be back next year, a little girl walked up to the family with a football in her hand.
She asked Aria if she got any signatures, to which Aria said she had not. The little girl handed Aria the football. On one side, Billy Buffalo had scribbled his signature. Aria flipped the ball over, and Kevin and Candace saw the number three, Damar Hamlin's number.
"Of course, then me and my husband are crying, you know, just because it meant so much," Candace said.
"I'm like, there's no way," Kevin said.
The day, capped off by a mini miracle in the form of a signed football, was more than a chance for three Bills fans to see their favorite team prepare for the upcoming season. It was a reminder to Kevin, who had a newfound appreciation for life and its fragility, that a normal life is attainable.
"[Damar] was back to normal. He was active, he was doing what he loved, he was happy," Candace said. "And you know, it's like, okay, we're going to get back to normal. We're going to get back to that stage where, this was just a bump in the road, we learned a lot of valuable lessons from it and hopefully some information we can pass along to others."