‘He’s alive, it could have been so much worse’
Lengthy recovery for dam accident victim
On July 21, “life” changed for Pentti (Ben) Paavilainen. How much is still unclear.
Paavilainen, 63, is in the intensive care unit at Hamilton General Hospital’s trauma centre on Barton Street. His room is quiet and bright with a large window. There are a number of tubes and monitors constantly being checked by an around-the-clock nurse. His torso is elevated. His arms, by his sides, are still. His right leg, bruised and swollen, is wrapped below his ankle and around what looks like a partial foot. His left leg is lightly bandaged, his left foot blue and swollen. A ventilator is helping him breathe. His eyes open periodically as he gazes at his wife, Sandra, who stands next to him, stroking his hair. She leans in and gently kisses his forehead.
She softly steps away to share her “lifelong” friend’s story.
“He’s alive. It could have been so much worse,” she says as she leaves the
Ben, as he’s known to family and friends, is from Finland. He’s lived in Canada since he was a toddler, growing up in Sault Ste. Marie. Six years ago, he moved to Blind River, a town located on the North Channel of Lake Huron in the Algoma district.
He and Sandra, 61, separated years ago, but have remained faithful friends.
“I love his sense of humour. Some people call him the king of the one-liners,” she said.
Described as a “quiet” and “timid” guy, who will “help anyone in need,” Sandra says he loves to spend any spare time he has fishing. “Sometimes he’s gone for hours,” she says.
Ben has worked in construction since he was a teen. Known for his dedication to the job and the quality of his work, he’s often called on to oversee projects. In mid July, he received a phone call from a Hamilton contractor he knows from previous jobs.
“The job was to restore a dam,” said Sandra.
Thursday July 21 — a scorching hot day, Ben and at least two other workers were inspecting a privately-owned dam at Progreston Falls, just outside Carlisle, around 11 a.m.
Ben was examining the wall for repair when a huge section of concrete came loose, landed on him, pinning him from mid-thigh down.
Police, fire, Ornge ambulance and paramedics were called to the scene, including Dr. NIV Sne, trauma team leader and surgeon at Hamilton General’s trauma centre.
“That concrete slab was well over 25 tonnes,” Sne said. “They couldn’t find a way manually to lift it off.”
Sne said his first thoughts when he got the call were not only to “think of the patient” but what resources he and his team — a combination of trauma specialists and vascular surgeon Dr. John Harlock — would need to deal with the situation and a possible amputation in the field, which he described as the “worst-case scenario.”
“You anticipate the worst, prepare for it and hope for the best outcome.”
Sne and his team arrived by ambulance to the scene, joining more than 20 other emergency crews who were tending to Ben, who was “sedated, conscious and responsive” when the trauma team arrived.
“It was a very uncontrolled environment and risky to work in,” said Sne of the rocky terrain at the bottom of the seven-metre-high dam.
“It’s mind-boggling that someone could be in that situation and still have a degree of consciousness.”
“He had I.V.’s in, we managed to get fluid in, blood into him … the next question was where do we go from here,” he said. “It was quite overwhelming, at the same time we were also trying to keep the patient as calm as we can.”
Ben was injected with painkillers, chemically paralyzed and put on a ventilator to protect his airway and help him breathe. As a result of the trauma, Ben suffered a
“mild heart attack” while he was trapped.
Not knowing how severe Ben’s injuries were, several measures were taken to ensure Sne and his surgical team had “full control” of the blood supply to Ben’s legs before a crane hoisted the huge slab off him.
“Despite the number of people that were there, it’s incredible how calm it was,” Sne said. “Panic instills chaos and you really don’t want that.”
The slab was lifted in about five minutes, fire crews pulled the patient onto the stretcher and he was flown to hospital.
Trapped for two-and-a-half hours, Ben’s left leg is broken in several places, supported by two metal rods and a number of “nails”. His right leg was partially amputated mid-foot. He faces weeks of rehabilitation.
Sne said his recovery will take time but the goal is to have him “walking again.” Only time will tell how severe the injuries are.
“This is a miracle … to escape alive and have some function of his lower limbs, I know no other way to describe it. All the stars were aligned. All the people that needed to be there were there.”
Sandra says she’s encouraged by his progress.
“The first three days were rough ... (Tuesday) was the first day he looked in my eyes and I felt hope. He was telling me he would get through this.”
Sandra said even though Ben could retire, she doesn’t think he will.
“He loves his work … but then maybe this will be the wake-up call to take some time, to start living for himself.”
An order from the Ministry of Labour was issued Thursday not to disturb the scene. Ministry spokesperson William Lin said the investigation is ongoing. The scene is near Green Spring and Progreston roads. “As part of the investigation, we’re looking into all the parties involved, what happened and any violation of laws.”
Ben Paavilainen is watched over by Sandra in the intensive care unit at Hamilton General Hospital. Paavilainen survived having a massive slab of concrete fall on his legs at the dam at Progreston Falls near Carlisle last Thursday.
A paramedic comforts Ben Paavilainen while he is trapped under a giant concrete slab Carlisle last Thursday.