Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin leaves Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati in an ambulance after suffering sudden cardiac arrest during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals in January. The Bills, in white, kneel at the bottom left of the image. Two members of the Department of Orthopaedics — Leslie J. Bisson, MD, and Marc S. Fineberg, MD — were among those honored with an ESPY Award for their contributions in helping save Hamlin’s life.

Bisson, Fineberg Receive ESPY’s Pat Tillman Award

By Bill Bruton

Published July 26, 2023

Two members of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Science’s Department of Orthopaedics were honored on a national stage July 12.

Bills’ Training, Medical Staffs Honored

“CPR is easy to do. You just have to get people used to it. All you need is good form and a good cadence and you can save a life.”
Clinical associate professor of orthopaedics

Leslie J. Bisson, MD

Leslie J. Bisson, MD, the June A. and Eugene R. Mindell, MD, Professor and Chair, and Marc S. Fineberg, MD, clinical associate professor, are members of the Buffalo Bills’ medical staff — which along with the team’s athletic training staff — received the Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2023 ESPY Awards, ESPN’s annual awards show.

Marc Fineberg.

Marc S. Fineberg, MD

Bisson is medical director for the Bills and Fineberg is team orthopaedist. They were not able to attend the ESPYS, but were able to attend this year’s Super Bowl and NFL Honors awards show.

The Bills’ medical and training staffs were recognized not only for their lifesaving emergency response for Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin, but also for “their commitment to every member of the team.”

“We appreciate the honor and the award. We hope it extends to all those other people who do this day in and day out,” Bisson said.

Monday Night Football Life-and-Death Drama

Hamlin went into sudden cardiac arrest during a Monday Night Football game against the host Cincinnati Bengals in January. He required CPR and the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED) on the field, before he was taken in an ambulance to University of Cincinnati Medical Center (UCMC). UCMC doctors said in the following days that it was the immediate care from the Bills’ and Bengals’ staffs that saved Hamlin’s life.

“It’s one of the things you prepare for. The team doctors and trainers — we watch what happens after the play,” Bisson said. “We practice for these life-threatening situations.”

Bisson mentioned that the medical and training staffs conduct drills during the year so that they are prepared to act, even in rare situations like the one they faced with Hamlin.

“It becomes like a drill at that point. Everybody did a great job of doing what they rehearsed. We practice for that type of a rescue,” Bisson said.

“It was a really good team game plan, and it turned out very well. I do think we did everything right. There were a lot of different details that brought it all together,” Fineberg said. “Damar is a wonderful, kind, loving person. I love how he’s utilized the platform. There will be many more lives saved from what we experienced and learned that night.”

More People Being Trained in CPR, AED Use

While some have called the lifesaving treatment and Hamlin’s subsequent recovery a miracle, the physicians indicated that the various procedures in place helped lead to the positive outcome.

“There’s evidence for all the things we did. It’s trained personnel, equipment and a plan,” Bisson said. “When you have those things in place, it radically enhances your chance to have a favorable outcome.”

“CPR is easy to do. You just have to get people used to it,” Fineberg said. “All you need is good form and a good cadence and you can save a life.”

What happened to Hamlin — which took place in front of such a large audience — has had positive effects, including more people getting trained in the use of CPR and more available use and training on AEDs.

“It seems to be doing that in a pretty big way. It got everybody collectively focused,” Bisson said. “Now if that focus moves to learn what to do in that situation, you can make a difference.”

“I'm thrilled for Damar. I don’t feel totally deserving of it because we were just doing our job,” Fineberg said. “The NFL has been wonderful to us. Thankfully, I’m part of a really great team that was well prepared, and we were working with a person who had a strong will to survive.”

On Medical Staff for Sabres as Well

Bisson helped save other professional athletes in his career.

He was part of the first response team that was key to a successful outcome following Bills tight end Kevin Everett’s on-field paralysis on a kick return in the 2007 season opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium against the Denver Broncos.

He was also first responder in helping to save Florida Panthers forward Richard Zednik, who lost five pints of blood when the skate of a teammate accidentally cut open Zednik’s carotid artery in a game in Buffalo in 2008. 

While it ended his football career, Everett was able to walk again; Zednik returned to play the following season.

Bisson received his medical degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He completed an internship in general surgery from Johns Hopkins, a residency in orthopaedic surgery from Cornell University Medical Center and a fellowship in sports medicine from American Sports Medicine Institute.

He is president of UBMD Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine. He is medical director/team orthopaedist for the Bills and Sabres and team orthopaedist for SUNY Buffalo State University.

In addition to his responsibilities as orthopaedics chair, Bisson served as the director of the orthopaedic sports medicine fellowship at the Jacobs School from its inception in 2007 until 2022.

Fineberg received his medical degree from Northwestern University. He completed a residency in orthopaedic surgery at New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases and completed a fellowship in orthopaedic sports at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. He graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Syracuse University.

Fineberg is also head team physician for the Sabres. The Williamsville North High School graduate specializes in arthroscopic knee and shoulder reconstruction and advanced techniques for major tendon and ligament repairs.

He is actively involved in the UBMD athletic training outreach program and serves on the board of directors of UBMD Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine.

Hamlin on Hand to Present Award

Hamlin presented the award to the medical and training staffs that had a huge hand in saving his life. A video narrated by Hamlin that led into the award cut back to a visibly emotional Hamlin on stage.

The crowd then gave Hamlin a standing ovation as he handed the award to the Bills’ personnel on hand for the ceremony. Hamlin stayed on stage and shared an embrace with team staff, adding to the emotional moment.

As he walked the red carpet before the ESPYS, Hamlin spoke about what the team meant to him.

“For me, it means everything,” Hamlin said of presenting the award. “They’re the reason why I’m standing in front of you today. Just doing their job, and the Pat Tillman Award is a direct act of service. And they wake up every day not wanting any credit for doing what they do; they just show up and do their job to the perfect way. And that’s what happened in my situation.”

Nathan Breske, Bills head athletic trainer, said that it was the “best outcome we could’ve prayed for or imagined” as he stood alongside Hamlin on stage to accept the award on behalf of the group.

Honors Late NFL Player, U.S. Army Ranger

The award is given to a person or group with “a strong connection to sports who has served others in a way that echoes the legacy of the former NFL player and U.S. Army Ranger, Pat Tillman.”

Tillman died in Afghanistan in 2004. He had enlisted following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.

The Pat Tillman Award for Service was established in 2014. Past recipients include Command Sergeant Major and Team UNBROKEN founder Gretchen Evans (2022), Canadian boxer and health care worker Kim Clavel (2020), and U.S. Paralympic gold medal sled hockey player and Purple Heart recipient Josh Sweeney (2014).

The ESPYS began in 1993 as a way to honor the most significant people, teams and moments in sports each year.