Paralyzed Humboldt Broncos player moves legs after experimental surgery in Thailand

A hockey player from Alberta who was paralyzed in last year's Humboldt Broncos bus crash has begun moving his legs after receiving experimental spinal surgery in Thailand — nearly kicking his therapist and asking if he could hit the gym.

Ryan Straschnitzki, a 20-year-old from Airdrie, Alta., was one of 13 junior hockey team players injured when a truck driver blew through a stop sign and collided with the Saskatchewan team's bus, killing 16 others in April 2018.

Straschnitzki was paralyzed from the chest down. 

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On Monday, doctors in Thailand implanted an epidural stimulator in Straschnitzki's spine in the hope that it could restore some movement in his legs.

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.

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

In a video shared by his family on Twitter on Wednesday, Straschnitzki is seen lying on his back while doctors help him through the rehabilitation process after the surgery.

Watch Ryan Straschnitzki move his legs in this video posted by his family:

"One time, [Ryan] almost kicked the therapist — oops," said the posting on Straschnitzki's Twitter feed, shared by a member of his family.

"Therapist is only holding his leg. Ryan is moving it. Then Ryan asks if he can go work out at the mall gym after. The stunned therapist said NO. You just had surgery. Seriously, son. Ha ha."

Straschnitzki is expected to remain in Thailand until December.

For Straschnitzki's mother Michelle, seeing her son smile in the video was overwhelming.

"It made me just bawl," she said.

"He was as surprised as the rest of us, I think. It just blows me away," she said, speaking from Calgary on Wednesday. "It's all blowing me away, just his determination and stick-to-it-iveness. It shouldn't be surprising anymore, but it really does knock the wind out of me."

The developments were more than the family was expecting at this stage, Michelle said.

Twitter
Twitter

"But I never thought anything else was going to happen. We always believed, and I think that's the motto of the whole group," she said. "I think it hasn't really changed my perspective, but this is proof that you can't give up faith."

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, and only about 30 worldwide.

Carolyn Dunn/CBC
Carolyn Dunn/CBC

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

"It should have happened yesterday, in my opinion. But I think it's a good start," Michelle said. "Like everything else we've undertaken in these last 19 months, there are things that should have been in place long before this. 

"But if we can help other people in getting this medical technology and breakthroughs to come to Canada and other parts of the world that are closer, that's the best we can hope for at the moment."

'Extremely positive'

Dr. Aaron Phillips, a professor at the University of Calgary, said the developments were positive, and a very common starting point when people with spinal cord injuries first have their devices implanted.

"Where he can go from here with optimization, further follow-up and tuning of his parameters will be important," Phillips said. "He can probably get to a higher ceiling than what you're seeing now, and even far higher."

When the stimulator was turned on, dormant pathways in Straschnitzki's spinal cord were reawakened, Phillips said. Through a period of months and tuning of the device, he is likely to see more improvement.

"He'll be able to start moving limbs below his injury site better and better and better. Where his ceiling will get, we don't know," Phillips said. "It's not typically a therapy that will [lead to] walking again, but they will have improved motor function in almost all cases.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press
Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

"This will extend not only to motor function, but to other unconscious functions — bladder, bowel, sexual, cardiovascular function — they can all improve with this therapy as well."

Such functions improving would massively increase Straschnitzki's quality of life, and is a big priority for doctors working on this therapy, Phillips said.

"I think the worst-case [scenario] is that he maintains this obvious restoration of some movement below his limbs that you're seeing today," he said. "The best case scenario is that he'll have some significant recovery in functional movements that will last for the rest of his life."

Straschnitzki has said he wants to make Canada's Paralympics team and compete for Canada's national sledge hockey team.

Prior to his surgery Monday, his family shared another post on Twitter.

"Before he went in, he texted a guy out here about ice time for [Wednesday]," the post said. "Ha ha. What a kid."

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