Calgary

'Turning humans into robots': Injured Broncos player plans to get experimental spinal surgery in Thailand

A hockey player paralyzed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in Saskatchewan last April plans to head to Thailand in his quest to get better.

'In the end, I think it will be worth it,' says Ryan Straschnitzki, 19

Humboldt Broncos bus crash survivor Ryan Straschnitzki was paralyzed from the chest down in the accident last April. He plans to go to Thailand for surgery that he and his family hope will help restore movement in the lower part of his body. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

A hockey player paralyzed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in Saskatchewan last April plans to head to Thailand in his quest to get better.

Ryan Straschnitzki of Airdrie, Alta., plans to undergo an experimental surgical procedure on his spine that he hopes can restore some movement below the level of his injury.

"It's kind of cool. Turning humans into robots," the 19-year-old said with a laugh in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

Straschnitzki and 12 others on the junior hockey team were injured when a semi truck blew through a stop sign and into the path of the team's bus last April. As well, 16 people died.

Straschnitzki was paralyzed from the chest down. Although he has been going to physiotherapy regularly and has taken up sledge hockey since the life-changing accident, he hopes the surgery might help him improve his daily life.

An epidural stimulation implant would be placed in his back. With the use of a small device like a remote control, the implant sends electrical currents to the spinal cord to stimulate nerves and move his limbs, bypassing traditional pathways.

Straschnitzki, of Airdrie, Alta., right, has been attending physio regularly since the accident. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The implant can be programmed to stimulate certain nerves mapped out by surgeons and therapists.

"It works, and it's safe and I can't wait," Straschnitzki said. "In the end, I think it will be worth it so I can have control over things that I didn't have control over before and things that are out of my power.

"Just getting some core muscles back would be awesome."

Straschnitzki was inspired to try the procedure by Dr. Richi Gill, a Calgary surgeon who had the operation last year after he was paralyzed in an accident.

Only a half-dozen people in Canada have had it done abroad and only about 30 worldwide.

The executive director of the Synaptic Spinal Cord Injury and Neuro Rehabilitation Centre in Calgary said Straschnitzki could be in Thailand in April or May. He would stay there between four and six weeks.

"Ryan is certainly a prime candidate for a procedure like this. So once we finish communicating with Thailand, Ryan should be approved to go ahead with the procedure," Uyen Nguyen said.

"The sooner this could happen the better."

Nguyen cautioned it isn't a cure, but it is new therapy that's growing in popularity. The surgery is relatively straightforward.

"It is a device that goes over the spinal cord and sends messages out to the rest of the body," she said. "It is the rehab afterwards that is arduous and tedious and that's where Ryan's strength and fortitude comes in. You have to commit."

The surgery can cost up to $100,000 and isn't covered by health care or insurance. It is also performed in countries such as the United States and Switzerland, but it's much cheaper in Thailand.

Straschnitzki's parents say it's worth it.

Cautious optimism

"The possibility is he could walk and get out of that wheelchair. That's the main thing right there," said Tom Straschnitzki.

Michelle Straschnitzki is a little more cautious.

"I just don't want to get up any false hopes," she said. "I think he's going in with a very strong attitude and, provided everything goes well, I think the sky's the limit for him."

Ryan Straschnitzki said he is a bit nervous but will cope with his jitters.

"I mean there's always going to be nerves with everything you do and I think I just have to overcome that — keeping that positive mind set, pushing myself every day and having the hope that I can walk again."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.