Par­a­lyzed Hum­boldt crash sur­vivor takes first steps

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - SPORTS - AP Sports Writer

By DAN GELSTON

The day Ryan Straschnit­zki un­der­went surgery that would turn his body into some­thing like a re­mote-con­trolled ro­bot, the par­a­lyzed hockey player had one deep worry: The 6-foot-1, 190-pound de­fense­man who once didn’t miss a shift even af­ter dis­lo­cat­ing a shoul­der told his dad he was afraid of nee­dles.

“I said, ‘Pal, they’re go­ing to open you up. Who cares. Let’s just get this done,’” said his fa­ther, Tom Straschnit­zki.

So be­gan the path to­ward Ryan’s first small steps since he was par­a­lyzed from the chest down 17 months ago in the dev­as­tat­ing Hum­boldt Bron­cos bus crash in Canada that killed 16 peo­ple, in­clud­ing some of his team­mates and coaches.

Early last month, Straschnit­zki was wheeled into a Thai­land hos­pi­tal for a four-hour pro­ce­dure that in­volved an epidu­ral stim­u­la­tor — think of it as a spinal pace­maker — be­ing placed in the bot­tom left side of his back to help bridge the gap be­tween his brain and his nerves.

Now 20, Straschnit­zki has since had three stem cell in­jec­tions in hopes of rev­ers­ing the dam­age from an in­jury that had sad­dled him with­out much prospect of ever leav­ing his wheel­chair

“I went in know­ing there had been some good out­comes,” Ryan Straschnit­zki said, “but ev­ery­body’s dif­fer­ent.”

About two weeks later, the for­mer ju­nior hockey player started to get re­sults.

With the aid of a de­vice that sends elec­tri­cal cur­rents re­motely to the spinal cord, stim­u­lat­ing both nerves and limbs, Straschnit­zki clutched a gait­train­ing E-Pacer to take a few sim­ple, halt­ing steps. A ther­a­pist nearby guided him to en­sure his knees didn’t buckle or his an­kles twist.

“The last time he walked when was when he walked onto the bus that day of the ac­ci­dent,” his fa­ther said.

Ryan has es­sen­tially had his body re­pro­grammed, one rea­son why fa­ther and son have spent more than a month in Thai­land as doc­tors map his move­ments through an iPad, and search for healthy mus­cles and nerves that could open a path to­ward walk­ing again.

The pro­ce­dure was done to strengthen core mus­cles — the ones around the trunk and pelvis — and al­low Straschnit­zki to move more in­de­pen­dently.

“It didn’t re­ally feel real,” he said. “I didn’t nec­es­sar­ily feel it but it was ac­tu­ally mov­ing. I kind of took into con­sid­er­a­tion that maybe this isn’t go­ing to be a cure, but it’s the next best thing for me.”

He was par­a­lyzed on April 6, 2018, in one of the worst tragedies in Cana­dian sports his­tory when an in­ex­pe­ri­enced truck driver blew through a stop sign at a ru­ral in­ter­sec­tion in Saskatchew­an and ran di­rectly into the path of the hockey team’s bus. Many sur­vivors have strug­gled in var­i­ous ways, their lives for­ever changed.

The Straschnit­zkis’ hunt for the right med­i­cal treat­ment has stretched from their Al­berta home to steamy Bangkok. He spent time at a re­hab hos­pi­tal in Philadel­phia this spring and went to a spinal cord in­jury and neu­ro­log­i­cal re­hab cen­ter in Cal­gary.

He struck up a re­la­tion­ship with for­mer sur­geon Richi Gill, who was par­a­lyzed af­ter a boo­gie board ac­ci­dent in Hawaii and had trav­eled to Thai­land to have the same im­plant placed in his lower back. He sug­gested Straschnit­zki needed to make the trip to have any hope of im­prov­ing his core mus­cles — a key for play­ing sled hockey — to re­gain some con­trol of his body.

Some hur­dles loomed, namely the $110,000 Cana­dian it cost to un­dergo surgery that wasn’t cov­ered by in­sur­ance for an op­er­a­tion in Thai­land. The Straschnit­zkis had ex­hausted cash raised via a crowd­fund­ing plat­form and are still ac­cept­ing dona­tions through the #strazstron­g cam­paign to cover the re­main­der of the bill.

Fa­ther and son re­turned home this past week­end to Air­drie, a short drive north of Cal­gary, for a re­u­nion with the rest of the fam­ily. Straschnit­zki was con­fined to the hos­pi­tal for three weeks and couldn’t even shower un­til the last few days. They were fi­nally cleared to leave the hos­pi­tal and had a guide ac­com­pany them to a shop­ping dis­trict and a zoo in Bangkok. Straschnit­zki,

all smiles when an orang­utan sat on his lap, will have to re­turn to Thai­land for a stem cell treat­ment.

“Our main fo­cus was get­ting his core back so he can live a nor­mal life,” Tom said. “Like go­ing to the bath­room, be able to do that, to know when he has to go. The legs and mov­ing them, to us, is a bonus.”

Since Straschnit­zki is up and about, his fa­ther wants to put him to use, jok­ing his son needs to start mak­ing beer runs. Straschnit­zki did pass his driver’s test this year and drives a car built for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

“I’ve got that free­dom back,” he said.

He also feels that in­de­pen­dence on the ice, just like when he started play­ing at age 5.

Straschnit­zki’s life out­side of re­hab starts with sled hockey for play­ers with phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties. He hit the ice for the first time this past week and was able to slow and cut on the sled in part by us­ing his strength­ened core mus­cles rather than just thrust­ing his picks into the ice.

He has pub­licly re­mained ide­al­is­tic about re­gain­ing his mo­tor skills, and has started to con­sider a fu­ture as a mo­ti­va­tional speaker. For­mer Hum­boldt team­mate Tyler Smith has be­come an ad­vo­cate for men­tal health and trig­gered the idea that Straschnit­zki can share his jour­ney of grief and re­newal from a cat­a­strophic in­jury where there is no fin­ish line.

“Never give up, stay pos­i­tive and you never know what can hap­pen in the fu­ture,” Straschnit­zki said. “The road is never over.”

TOM STRASCHNIT­ZKI - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

This photo pro­vided by Tom Straschnit­zki shows Ryan Straschnit­zki as he plays with an orang­utan dur­ing a visit to the Sa­fari World zoo in Bangkok, Thai­land, Sun­day, Dec. 1, 2019. Ryan was left par­a­lyzed from the chest down af­ter the bus car­ry­ing his Hum­boldt Bron­cos hockey team col­lided with a truck at a ru­ral in­ter­sec­tion in Canada 17 months ago. The for­mer hockey prospect went to Thai­land to have a stim­u­la­tor im­planted in his back so elec­tri­cal cur­rents can com­mu­ni­cate with his nerves. He took his first small steps and hopes for a bet­ter life.

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