A devastating spinal injury

Ritchie’s astonishing recovery

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“I remember being on the mountain just screaming. All I could do was scream. That’s how bad the pain was.”

On January 15, 2017, 30 year old Ritchie Biln experienced a devastating and life-changing accident. An avid and experienced backcountry snowmobiler, Ritchie was out for a ride in a familiar area between Whistler and Squamish. What seemed like a perfect day quickly turned into a nightmare when Ritchie felt the snow shifting out from underneath him.

Suddenly, he crashed down 30 feet and on impact cracked his back on a metal bracket of his snowmobile.

Ritchie couldn’t move and due to weather conditions, he lay in the cold for three hours waiting for the BC Air Ambulance to arrive.

Initial assessment showed Ritchie’s spinal cord was badly damaged and, to give him the best chance of recovery, he needed the surgical expertise available at Vancouver General Hospital.

Leaders in spinal care

At VGH Ritchie underwent several MRIs which showed the impact of his fall had shattered his vertebrae and bone fragments were embedded in his spinal cord. The damage was so severe Ritchie’s partner, Kristen, was told he may never walk again.

“When we first got to the hospital a member of the medical team sat us down and said, I just need to warn you, this is not looking good,” says Kristen.

Dr. Brian Kwon, Orthopaedic Spine Surgeon, assessed that Ritchie would need surgery to realign the spine and remove the bone fragments.

“It was very severe,” says Dr. Kwon. “With that kind of injury we were very concerned about the potential that there wouldn’t be any function from the waist down.”

Dr. Kwon led the complex five-hour surgery, methodically removing bone fragments and decompressing and realigning Ritchie’s spine. After the delicate and painstaking procedure, Ritchie’s spine was repaired with no lasting damage.

85,000 Canadians live with paralysis of the arms and legs due to spinal cord injuries.
VGH is BC’s sole referral centre for acute spinal cord injuries.

Critical post-op care

After surgery Ritchie was put into a post-operative spinal care unit where he was looked after by several spinal cord injury specialists. One person in particular stood out to Ritchie and Kristen, Registered Nurse Nathaniel Lacson.

“He was in quite a lot of pain due to his complicated injury,” says Nathaniel. “We’re the best in North America for spinal cord treatment. So when Ritchie was experiencing complex post-op care, he was in the best hands. And despite his pain, Ritchie was easy to be with. He had a strong mind and great family support too.”

Dr. Hamed Umedaly, Head of the Department of Anesthesiology at VGH and UBC Hospital, had to find the perfect balance for Ritchie’s pain management. Due to the complexity of Ritchie’s case he required specialized, controlled dosages of various medications to fully manage his pain.

With expert post-op care from Dr. Umedaly and Nathaniel, as well as support from his family and his own determination, Ritchie was up and using a walker only 10 days after surgery. Within two and a half weeks he was home, walking around his house.

In less than a year after surgery, Ritchie was back to snowmobiling.

A renewed life

Ritchie and Kristen have since married and are expecting their first child. They have come out of the experience with a renewed sense of life and an appreciation for the expert medical care available at VGH.

“Things can happen at any time and in the unfortunate circumstances it does, the donations that have been made in order to have state-of-the-art equipment, the best services and the most amazing staff will make all the difference in your care, treatment, recovery and outcome,” says Kristen.

Support from donors like you helps ensure that the right talent, technology and equipment are there when and where you need them. Learn more about how you can support the Future of Surgery in BC.