‘Just like Iron Man’: Calgary surgeon undergoes experimental spinal surgery

Dr. Richi Gill was in a freak accident on a boogie board during a family vacation in Hawaii

Dr. Richi Gill’s life changed in an instant.

The 38-year-old surgeon, who helped develop Calgary’s bariatric surgery program, was involved in a freak accident on a boogie board during a family vacation in Hawaii one year ago.

“The wave pushed me down instead of forward in pretty shallow waters. My head hit the ground and ended up breaking my neck,” Gill said following a recent physiotherapy session.

“I don’t have any movement or sensation below that injury level. I do have some use of my arms but not my hands.”

Gill described how he embarked on strenuous rehabilitation at Calgary’s Synaptic Spinal Cord Injury and Neuro Rehabilitation Centre, then headed to Thailand in October for experimental surgery.

An epidural stimulation implant was placed in his lower back. With the use of a small device like a remote control, the implant sends electrical currents to Gill’s spinal cord to stimulate nerves and move his limbs, bypassing the traditional brain-to-spinal-cord pathways.

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

Gill said his middle of three children, Akaash, thinks the implant is cool.

“He’s very much like, ‘This is just like Iron Man! … We need the suit,” Gill said.

“He’s only seven so I think he might think there’s a suit that’s out there somewhere.”

The smile doesn’t fade from Gill’s face as, strapped into a harness, physiotherapists slowly help him walk with the use of a machine on wheels. Gill isn’t able to move his legs on his own, but by concentrating he is able to make his hip muscles flex and help himself along.

“Right now, realistically, assisted stepping is where I’m at and being able to stand with assistance. Will I be able to walk on my own? It’s a possibility. My main focus is just trying to improve day by day and we’ll see where that gets me.

“It’s definitely fatiguing because each time you try to take a step you have to really focus and concentrate to get that signal to the right spot.”

READ MORE: Surgery provides Vernon woman with new life

READ MORE: ‘You’ve gotta try it:’ Teen paralyzed in Humboldt crash goes to U.S. for treatment

Gill spent $100,000 for the surgery and travel, since they weren’t covered by health care or insurance. He plans to return to Thailand later this year to have a second stimulator placed higher up on his spine.

His career as a surgeon is over, he said, but he hopes the operations in Thailand will help him regain some hand function and his overall quality of life.

The spinal surgery is also performed in a few other countries such as the United States and Switzerland, but it’s much cheaper in Thailand.

Only a half dozen people in Canada have had it done abroad and the number worldwide is about 30, said Dr. Aaron Phillips with the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.

So few procedures having been done makes it harder to get approval from Health Canada or the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, he said.

Phillips has been involved in assessing the procedure for the last nine years.

“I’m just really overcautious about selling these things too early. And, although I am extremely excited about the potential of this therapy, it still needs to pass rigorous tests first,” he said.

“We don’t know if this will work the same way in everyone. We’re still dealing with very small numbers, although the initial findings are promising.”

Ryan Straschnitzki of Airdrie, Alta., the Humboldt Broncos player who was paralyzed from the chest down when the Saskatchewan team’s bus crashed last April, has become friends with Gill through the Synaptic clinic.

Gill has inspired the 19-year-old with his positivity.

“He’s able to do things he couldn’t do before. It’s amazing,” said Straschnitzki.

The executive director of Synaptic has seen a marked change in Gill’s abilities and has visited the medical facility in Thailand.

“Given the nature of Richi’s injury, there was no sensory and no volitional movement below his level injuries. This has allowed Richi to regain some of that function and to be able to command voluntary movement below his level of injury,” says Uyen Nguyen.

“This is not a cure. But from what we can see, this appears to be the most promising procedure for people with spinal cord injuries.”

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Police investigating man’s death in Winlaw

Foul play not established, but major crimes unit is investigating

Bilingual child care spaces coming to Castlegar

New daycare opening this summer will teach kids French and English

Motion calls on Rossland city council to recognize ‘climate crisis’

Andy Morel wants to raise awareness of urgent need for action by higher levels of government

Looking to rent affordable housing in Greater Trail?

The website lists non-profit housing options available in the Lower Columbia

Woman raising funds to save historic Rossland piano

Rare Steinway piano was in Miners Hall for a century, but was headed to the dump

600 new campsites coming to provincial parks and recreation sites across B.C.

Tourism Minister announced half of the new spots to 13 most popular provincial parks

Court to rule on B.C.’s pipeline permit law in crucial case for Trans Mountain

A panel of B.C. Court of Appeal judges has been mulling B.C.’s constitutional reference cas

Theresa May to quit as party leader June 7, sparking race for new PM

The new Conservative leader will become prime minister without the need for a general election

B.C. man who fell off cliff returns there to rescue eagle from vulture attack

Nanaimo’s James Farkas, who broke his hip in a fall, saves eagle on same beach months later

Raptors beat Bucks 105-99 to move within 1 game of NBA Finals

Leonard scores 35 as Toronto takes 3-2 series lead over Milwaukee

Municipalities protest after B.C. declares marijuana crops ‘farm use’

UBCM president seeks answers in letter to John Horgan government

CMHC defends mortgage stress test changes amid calls for loosening rules

Uninsured borrowers must now show they could service their mortgage if rates rose two per cent

B.C. woman left ‘black and blue’ after being pushed off 40-foot cliff at lake

West Shore RCMP looking for witnesses as investigation continues

Grand Forks woman assaulted in home invasion

The incident took place Wednesday morning

Most Read