ICU doctor recounts hours-long trek across B.C. to help patient hurt by landslide

A man who was critically injured in a B.C. landslide was unable to be moved from a hospital in the small town of Hope, so a team of health-care professionals braved treacherous weather conditions to bring medical care to him.

“It was a real leap of faith to get this done in a really short period of time when there was so much uncertainty about what the weather was going to do,” Dr. Greg Haljan, an ICU doctor and site medical director for Surrey Memorial Hospital, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

The patient was rescued on Sunday after the landslide struck his vehicle, and was brought to Fraser Canyon Hospital in Hope to be treated. Haljan said that the man required care in an ICU, but the hospital was so small it didn’t have one.

By Monday evening, Haljan said they knew that because of weather conditions, the injured man would not be able to be moved.

“It was very clear that this gentleman could not get out and and there was no way to get a helicopter in because [of] the winds,” he said. 

Haljan, who also has a background in rescue work, began calling his connections to figure out how to get from Vancouver to Hope, a 150-kilomtre drive east that might normally take a little over an hour and a half. 

Narrow window to make it through

Haljan learned that if he could get a team to Chilliwack, CN Rail would be able to help them to Hope. 

“Our next order of business was trying to figure out if we can get actually from Surrey through Abbotsford to Chilliwack, knowing that the highway was closed at that point,” he said. 

He spoke with RCMP at the detachment near his house in Vancouver and found out there was a way through.

“Once I knew that, that’s when I really started to move,” he said.

Haljan said he got the green light to go at 7 p.m. PT.  He then picked up respiratory therapist Sumeet Gil and critical care nurse Greg Sills in Surrey, and then met Fraser Canyon Hospital medical director Dr. Aseem Grover.

It’s just really incredible to be one small part of a huge chain of survival and all the relationships and all the trust that went into it across so many different agencies.- Dr. Greg Haljan

The next step was to meet an Abbotsford police officer, who escorted them through back roads, lights flashing. At one point, Haljan said they reached a highway overpass, and behind them they could see the highway was already flooded.

“One of the reasons we’re moving fairly quickly and efficiently … was we knew there was a very narrow time window to try to get through there,” he said. “That particular route was closed about 90 minutes after we got through because of floodwaters.”

Haljan said they got a little bit east of Chilliwack, and then he had to leave his pickup truck in order to get on the railway. His truck is still where he left it.

“[It’s] at an undisclosed location east of Chilliwack. It’s in pretty good shape. The local fire department’s had a look at it,” he said. “They’ve told me I park like a city doctor, so that’s encouraging, I suppose.”

A view from inside the rail truck as Haljan and his team sped towards Hope, B.C., to help a man who had been badly injured when a landslide struck his vehicle. (Submitted by Greg Haljan.)

Getting on the rails

Then the team met up with a CN Rail employee for the next leg of the journey.

“We met up with the supervisor who’d been working feverishly on the rail line actually for the last 24 hours and got onto the rail truck with the four of us and him, and got onto the rail, which was quite an extraordinary experience,” he said. 

A rail truck is a pickup truck that has been modified with train wheels, so the truck can drive along a rail line. 

“The engineering work that they’d done to get that rail line back up and running was incredible to see as we went by,” he said. “For a rail company to step up like this, I don’t know that it’s ever happened before, that I know of, in any case.”

The four-person team was on the rails by 10 p.m. and arrived in Hope at around midnight. Haljan said they went straight to see the patient.

“We were really encouraged that he was in good shape,” he said.

The patient was airlifted from Hope by 3:50 a.m. PT Tuesday morning, said Haljan. He first had to check the field to make sure it was safe for the helicopter to land. (Submitted by Greg Haljan.)

Then the weather opened up and gave the team a chance to airlift the patient. A helicopter arrived at 3:35 a.m., Tuesday morning and the patient left before 4 a.m. Less than an hour later he was in a Lower Mainland hospital, said Haljan.

Later that morning the doctor and the team left Hope by helicopter.

“It’s just really incredible to be one small part of a huge chain of survival and all the relationships and all the trust that went into it across so many different agencies,” he said.

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