A tale of (multiple) helping hands, and a wheelchair’s journey to a crash survivor
CALGARY, Alta. – Connecticut and Saskatchewan are more than 30 hours apart by truck, but news of the collision that killed 16 members of the Humboldt Broncos hit close to home for Chris Pisani.
The Pisanis are a hockey family as well. They have climbed aboard countless buses just like the one that collided with the tractor-trailer on a prairie highway. After watching an interview with Ryan Straschnitzki, one of the 13 crash survivors, he wanted to help. And he wondered – maybe the used motorized wheelchair that had come into his hands could be put to good use.
The question was how to get the chair where it needed to go. He had already struggled to find a way to donate the chair in the past, but transportation was the biggest hurdle when it came to moving the 330 pounds of seat, wheels and motor.
“I never anticipated how many layers and how complex the transportation was going to be,” Pisani admits. “I thought, I’ll just get it in the truck and drive it to an ice rink.” Maybe it would move from there.
Such began a journey that involved multiple sets of hands, and a chance encounter he and his wife had with Calgary’s Shiels family during a vacation in Cancun, Mexico.
Pisani reached out to Brian Shiels, asking if he had any ideas. But the journey still wasn’t that straightforward.
“It’s been a weird set of circumstances,” says Shiels, whose family had participated in a vigil that honored the Humboldt Broncos before receiving the call.
Shiels isn’t in trucking himself. The former president of Hockey Regina owns an environmental services business. So he reached out to Dave Hulse, a friend that worked as an equipment salesman. He’s the one who connected Shiels to Orlicks Transport’s Gene Orlick, who recently served as chairman of the Canadian Trucking Alliance.
Hulse’s dad had sold trailers to Orlick’s father in the 1970s and ’80s. The two men are also connected by hockey. Orlick coached Hulse’s son Cale in Bantam hockey during the 1985 season, before Cale began playing in the NHL.
“You kind of see how small the world really is when you connect these dots,” Shiels says.
And when it came to connecting the dots needed to move the chair, Orlick was key.
“I called Pete Dalmazzi of Trucks for Change,” Orlick explains, referring to the group that helps to connect charities with those who will haul freight for discounted rates or free. “Within a few hours, they hooked us up with David and Stephanie Carruth of One for Freight.”
One for Freight already made regular deliveries between Milton, Ont. and Wallingford, Conn., and they were eager to help.
“A lot of us around here are hockey fans,” says that fleet’s human resources manager, Stephanie Carruth. “In the trucking space, with everything that happened, it hit home for us as well.”
She reached out to Pisani for the details, such as where the chair was manufactured, how much it weighs, and the relative value. Client relations specialist Henry Oduro-Peprah took that information to the Canada Border Services Agency, processing the load through inland customs. They helped to ensure the chair could cross the border without duties or tariffs, treating the used medical device like other emergency supplies.
Enter One for Freight dispatcher Derrick Doherty, who connected with owner-operator Goran Drasko, who picked up the chair and delivered it to Milton. Carruth was there when the truck backed up to the dock with the chair inside.
Fleet operations manager Kurt Jackson reached out to Denise Elliott of Trans-Frt McNamara’s safety and recruiting team, who helped get things rolling for the next leg of the journey to Calgary. Kristina Pickett of One for Freight set up the carrier confirmation with Trans-Frt McNamara highway planner Simone Buchanan. She kept in touch with Carruth over the Victoria Day weekend as the chair rolled westward. Brad Tokawa drove it to Ayr, Ont. Tim and Tracy Van Halem took it from there to Winnipeg. Austin Potter picked up the chair for its run to Calgary.
That’s where Orlick stepped in once again. He teamed up with Kal Tire’s George Janousek, who had a pickup with a power tailgate that could work. They delivered the chair during the all-important final mile.
“We look forward to Ryan enjoying a little more freedom,” said Orlick, just hours before the delivery completed on Wednesday afternoon.
Straschnitzki is committed to his physiotherapy. But there is much to heal with the spinal injury, broken ribs, broken collar bone, punctured lung, and bleeding in his head and pelvic area. For now, the work involves learning how to move from his wheelchair to a bed with the help of a slide board, and how to rock back and forth so he can turn on his side.
“I’m not too sure I’m ever going to walk again,” he said. “In the meantime, though, I’ll be using this for sure, and it’s going to help with just everything.”
“Trucking is a very stressful industry, but when you’re doing stuff like this,” says Carruth, “it makes everything worth it.”
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