Spinal surgery brings ski instructor from brink of paralysis back to the slopes


February 26, 2019 was a normal day for Jo(an) Guthrie. Fresh off the previous Friday’s Peak to Valley race, she was working as an instructor at Whistler, guiding a ski group. Conditions were ideal,  it was cold, but skies were blue. Her group was still warming up when Joan took an unexpected 20-foot jump off a road and into a mogul field.

She landed the jump but had to sit down. She was having trouble breathing. Jo was taken off the mountain on a toboggan for medical assistance.

“There was some discomfort,” Jo remembers. “But it didn’t occur to me that I could be seriously injured.”

A trip to the Whistler Medical Clinic wasn’t new for Jo, having been a long-time Whistler resident, working as a ski patroller for six years and an instructor for 20. But this visit was different.  While she was laying in the stretcher, Jo came to a chilling realization.

“I noticed that I was unable to move my left foot. Within minutes I was paralyzed from the chest down. I was shocked, stunned and fearful.”

Spinal injuries are extremely time sensitive. Rapid access to effective treatment can make the difference between life and death, paralysis or recovery. Jo’s X-rays revealed a fracture in her back, and with the sudden onset of her paralysis, she was urgently taken by a helicopter to the place in BC best able to help her — Vancouver General Hospital.

Dr. Brian Kwon, an internationally recognized spinal surgeon, was waiting for Jo’s arrival. Thanks to the advanced imaging available at VGH, he was able to determine that a hematoma, a large bruising, had formed in her spine and was pressing on the spinal cord. By now it was 3 A.M. and she required immediate surgery.

Luckily for Jo — and hundreds of other patients every year— VGH is uniquely equipped for this situation.

“I think the key thing is the rapidity with which this all took place, which really capitalizes upon the fact that VGH is the sole referral center for these injuries,” says Dr. Kwon. “We were able to access an MRI in the middle of the night and whisked her straight up to the operating room. We were able to do this because we have tremendous surgical teams that we’re able to rapidly activate.”

Jo underwent surgical decompression and had six screws and two rods inserted into her spine. Afterwards she spent 10 days in the ICU and two weeks in the spinal cord unit at VGH.

“The capabilities of the ICU at VGH were key as well,” says Dr. Kwon. “We had the appropriate staff and resources to manage Jo’s spinal cord blood flow and perfusion. All of these things are unique in BC to VGH.”

Her recovery included intense physiotherapy culminating in a six-week daily programme of gym and pool therapy.

Eight months later, Joan was back on the slopes — a remarkable recovery time.

“Certainly, her fitness level was helpful,” says Dr. Kwon. “But at the end of the day, the fitness level doesn’t matter if your cord is severely damaged, and treatment is delayed.”

Today, Jo is also back on the golf course, another of her favourite activities. Her back does get sore and tired sometimes. But, given her initial injuries, her story could have ended up completely differently.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that I would never have skied again without the emergency surgery and care I received. Dr. Kwon and his team brought me back from the brink of paralysis.”

From having expert teams trained and able to provide world-class care, to the intra-operative CT scanner and ultrasound machine that allows surgeons to visualize the bones and the spinal cord, donor support was there for Jo at VGH every step of the way.

Your donations can provide continued support for Dr. Kwon and his team, to help ensure that they will always be ready to meet the most complex surgical needs of all British Columbians. Please donate today.