‘He’s alive, it could have been so much worse’

Lengthy re­cov­ery for dam ac­ci­dent vic­tim

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - KELLY NOSEWORTHY

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.

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