Former Humboldt Bronco Ryan Straschnitzki opens up about ‘groundbreaking’ surgery


Former Humbolt Bronco hockey player Ryan Straschnitzki gets his new jersey with PX3 AMP hockey team in Calgary, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. (Todd Korol/CP)

"Pretty crazy."

That’s how Ryan Straschnitzki described being able to move his legs for the first time since being paralyzed from the chest down in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash 19 months ago.

Three days after undergoing experimental spinal surgery in Thailand, the 20-year-old native of Airdrie, Alta., made his first public comments on its success via a Facetime call Thursday that saw him smiling endlessly throughout.

"Honestly, I don’t know if this is the cure to get walking again, but it’s pretty damn close," he said from his hospital bed in Bangkok.

"I thought this would kind of bring back some little muscles to get stronger, but I’m actually getting full contractions and full leg movements and core activations. A lot of things are coming back, so I’m pretty excited."

Straschnitzki is one of just a handful of Canadians who have travelled to Thailand to receive an epidural stimulator that sends electrical currents to his spinal cord to trigger nerves and move his limbs.

With the help of a handheld device, he’s now working with surgeons and therapists to help him regain mobility, with some instant results.

Emotional video of him moving his legs for the first time was released by his family on Twitter Wednesday, sparking an overwhelming response he was asked about in a wide-ranging interview that also includes talk of offers he’s already contemplating to practice sledge hockey in Bangkok.

SN: Take me through the last few days.

RS: I woke up from the surgery and was told to take it easy on my back. They gave me a lot of drugs. I was a little sore and tired so they gave me the day off to rest and heal up. The next day it was straight to programming. They attached a Bluetooth device and said, “Alright, try to move your foot.” So, I tried to move it and it moved on its own. I just kept doing that and it was pretty crazy.

Did it surprise you?

Ya. Honestly, I didn’t know this kind of stuff was out there. I thought this would kind of bring back some little muscles to get stronger, but I’m actually getting full contractions and full leg movements and core activations. A lot of things are coming back, so I’m pretty excited.

Are there any limits to this? Is the belief there that this could ultimately get you walking?

Honestly, I don’t know if this is the cure to get walking again, but it’s pretty damn close. Any way I can get my body to heal faster and to work harder. If that means walking with a walking device or an apparatus, there’s lots of options out there, but it all kind of depends on the person.

How does it feel to hear Canadians are so excited to see your latest progress in that video?

That’s crazy. The word spread and I want to get it out there. I know there’s a lot of attention around it. To kind of bring awareness to Canada’s health care system and how it’s kind of lacking in this area. So, I think it’s important to get the word out there and get the discussion going.

When you heard of this, did you talk to doctors here in Canada about it?

No, we never really brought it up. We watched some testimonials, and I go to physio with a person who had two implants and he’s a doctor who did the research. It’s the best thing for spinal cord injuries right now.

How long was the surgery?

Roughly four hours.

Were you pretty beat up afterwards?

No. It was below my injury, so I didn’t really feel much. It’s a fresh wound so I have to let it heal up.

Along with tremendous heartache, you’ve had some special moments along the way. Where does this rank?

This is probably number one. Not only will this help me improve my quality of life and possibly walking in some way, but in the game of sledge hockey it will help with some of that stuff I didn’t have before. Having that core function to move around, whereas I didn’t have that before. I was using my arms a lot more. I think it’s important to get those muscles moving.

How much can you extend that leg now?

In the morning, when I’m fresh and have lots of energy, I can move it pretty well. By the end of the day, when you’re in your second session, it slows down, so I’ve got to work on those muscles.

How does the device work?

They gave me a Bluetooth device I set all the programs to. I select a program and sync it up beside me, select a program for a certain activity and it will start firing up.

When did you first hear about this technology?

I heard about it last spring and we were going to go in the summer, but it was way too hot and my dad can’t handle the heat.

What did this surgery cost?

Roughly just over $100,000, which isn’t covered by insurance or anything.

Worth every dime, I assume?

Absolutely. This is the biggest thing for spinal cord injuries. Obviously, the price is a little tough. Maybe this can open the eyes of different countries and get them working on the same thing.

Did someone sponsor your surgery?

We raised the money through the Straz Strong Foundation and selling the Straz Strong hats. So, thanks to the people who did that. It’s because of them I’m here and I’m able to do this right now.

How long are you there for?

Five weeks.

You brought your sledge hockey sled with an eye on ultimately making the national team. Any chance they have ice there and you could use it?

I got a lot of messages from some hockey team here in Bangkok and they said they have an ice rink in the mall and whenever I need ice just let them know.

Can I assume your phone is exploding with text messages full of support?

I would wake up to 50 texts and social media things and tags. It’s been a lot.

What’s the best way to describe what you’ve just endured?

Groundbreaking. It’s the best thing out there right now and it’s doing a lot of wonders.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.