Paralysed crash survivor takes first steps thanks to 'spinal pacemaker'

A former ice hockey player paralysed after a bus crash has taken his first steps thanks to a unique spinal implant.

Ryan Straschnitzki was paralysed from the chest down 17 months ago in a devastating 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 told the AP news agency, ‘but everybody’s different.’

About two weeks later, the former junior 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 gait-training 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 Tom Straschnitzki 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 paralysed 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 has publicly remained idealistic about regaining his motor skills, and has started to consider a future as a motivational speaker.

Former Humboldt Broncos 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.’

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