Mason Raymond: So you’re an expert?

After Mason Raymond’s hit from Johnny Boychuk in game 6 of the Stanley Cup final, nobody could have been more surprised than I when he left the ice on his feet after what seemed like several minutes of face-down on-ice discussion with a Vancouver trainer. When a player goes down (and stays down) for that long, we’re used to seeing them stretchered off in full spinal immobilization.

The purpose of full spinal is to keep the spine still (amazing, I know). It involves being strapped to a hard plastic spine board with your head held completely still looking straight ahead (or straight up, as is the case once you’re laying flat on your back). There’s an algorithm used to decide who needs full spinal precautions – at its simplest it’s a question of whether there’s potential for a head, neck, or back injury. Is there neck pain? Spine board. Head injury? Spine board. Penetrating injury that could compromise the spine? Spine board. Too drunk to stand up and fell off the porch/bicycle/moped/roof of your brah’s SUV? Spine board.

So the question is why Raymond left the ice on his feet. There are actually several reasons this could have been completely appropriate, despite what Twitter’s many, many experts seem to believe. I kicked off a Twitter explosion the likes of which I hadn’t previously seen with two simple tweets:

Lots of criticism for skating Raymond off. Trainers aren’t stupid, guys. Guarantee they tried to get him on a spineboard and he refused.

And as if that weren’t enough expert-bait, I followed it up with:

So let’s give up the “Skating him off is malpractice!”. Were you there? Are you an expert? Cue Andy Sutton.

Now let’s back it up just a bit and take a look at the hit:


The first thing worth noticing is that Raymond doesn’t seem to lose consciousness. He’s also moving his arms and legs. Next, he and Canucks head trainer Mike Burnstein actually spend a full minute in discussion before Kesler and Higgins help Raymond up and off the ice. In an injury situation a minute is a really, really long time. Usually the way it goes is you get the equipment you need, get the patient on it, and get the patient out. You know what situation usually gets in the way of keeping things moving? Arguing. My suspicion is that Burnstein was doing his best to convince Raymond to get on a board, and ultimately couldn’t do it. That wasn’t malpractice, Vancouver’s trainers are experts, and I’ll gladly explain why.

The Algorithm

To be clear, there are two types of spinal clearance algorithms. The kind that determines if an injured person needs to be on a spine board at all (used in the field by EMS, athletic trainers, and other first responders) and the kind emergency physicians use to determine if someone with a spinal injury can come off of the spine board, and if they need imaging (x-rays). I’m talking about the first algorithm. Let’s walk through it.

1. The patient gets injured. The ambulance gets called.

2. Spinal exam: Do they have neck and/or back pain? This can be on movement or palpation.

3. Neuro exam: Are there any focal neurological deficits? Examples would be numbness, tingling, weakness/inability to move.

4. Mechanism of injury: Is it significant? “Significant” is different just about everywhere. Several state EMS formularies define it as such (and yes, most of these relate to motor vehicle crashes):

  • Ejection from the vehicle
  • Death in the same passenger compartment
  • Fall greater than 15-20 feet (or some places use twice the patient’s height)
  • Vehicle rollover
  • Vehicle vs pedestrian
  • High-speed collision
  • Motorcycle crash
  • Unconscious or altered level of consciousness following injury
  • Penetrating injury to head, neck, torso

Common sense (and the more clever formularies) add axial loading to this list. An axial load is a force applied to the head that causes spinal compression (or loading). Think of someone jumping into a pool and hitting their head on the bottom. The Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine did a nifty little study wherein they found that in non-car-crash incidents, you’re at greatest risk for a spinal fracture with axial loads, falls, diving accidents, and motorized non-car vehicles (ATVs, snowmobiles, etc – If anyone’s interested I have a great rant about why you should stay the hell away from those evil, evil, contraptions).

5. Impairment: Is the patient impaired (ie. by drugs/alcohol)?

6. Distracting injuries: Does the patient have any painful injuries that might distract from their spinal issue? For example, if your leg is hanging off, we’re probably not going to spend time discussing whether you need a spine board.

If you answered yes to any of those questions, the patient needs to be immobilized. Problematically, some people still refuse. Even more problematically, those people are often sober and intelligent.

Okay, so what do you do if someone needs to be put on a spine board and they refuse?

Well, contrary to what the Twitter experts believe, you don’t force them. You explain to them the consequences of their actions. You beg. You plead. You might bully a little bit. You might even threaten just a touch. Have I ever told someone that by refusing treatment they could die? You bet. Have I had a patient actually die as a result of refusing treatment? Almost. It’s hard to understand just how completely useless you feel trying to explain to an unwilling patient that you’re trying to help them. So let’s spend a moment in Mike Burnstein’s shoes, and in Mason Raymond’s skates.

In Raymond’s case, he’s just hit the boards ass-first in one of the most important hockey games he’ll ever be a part of. Maybe he’s in pain, maybe he isn’t. Spinal compression fractures are tricky little beasts – usually they’ll present with midline back pain, but they can also present with pain in a completely unrelated area (the lateral back, buttocks, hip, etc.) or no pain at all.  Since none of us are Mason Raymond, none of us know where or if he was hurting. There’s no way of knowing what his neuro exam was, but he was definitely moving his extremities after he went down. As far as mechanism goes, the video of the hit makes it look like there was probably an axial load from Boychuck driving him into the boards. Did Burnstein know that? Probably not. Did Raymond know that? If you’ve ever taken a hit (or been in a car wreck, or had any kind of sudden trauma) you know that even if you aren’t knocked out, you’re usually not able to immediately describe the mechanics of what happened. And let’s be honest – Raymond probably didn’t care what the mechanics were. More than likely he just wanted to get back up and keep playing.

Given Burnstein’s extensive training and experience, you have to assume he was trying to get Raymond on a board. Any assertion that he doesn’t know what he’s doing or committed malpractice makes about as much sense as trading Chara for Daigle (which is actually kind of a dumb example since that actually happened). To soothe the Twitter experts, why don’t we go ahead and define medical malpractice, just so it’s clear why Burnstein’s actions don’t qualify.

Malpractice: There’s more to it than you think.

Medical malpractice may vary from state to state, province to province, and country to country. I’m not a lawyer, so don’t expect any complex legalese here. This is just an overview of what’s involved. There are four requirements for a charge of medical malpractice:

  • Duty to act: This is the care provider’s responsibilities within his job/training. In Burnstein’s case, as the head trainer he has a duty to respond to and treat injuries to players. His level of training allows him to recognize Raymond’s injury and then to direct that he be immobilized and transported to the hospital. That’s assuming Raymond consents to the indicated treatment (we’ll look at consent in a second – that’s significant in this case).
  • Breach of duty: A breach occurs when the provider fails to provide the care that’s indicated (and permitted by his level of training). If you want to argue that Raymond needed immobilization (which it’s safe to say he probably did), then you may also want to argue that Burnstein committed a breach of duty. I’ll argue that he didn’t, under the assumption that Raymond wouldn’t consent to immobilization.
  • Injury resulting from the breach: Failure to provide the indicated treatment causes injury to the patient. This is hard to argue either way in this case. Raymond broke his back when he hit the wall. There’s no way to say if skating off the ice made it worse.
  • Damages: This refers to emotional distress or monetary loss – i.e. if someone didn’t receive the indicated treatment and as a result was unable to work. The damages must be as a direct result of the breach of duty. In this case you’d be hard-pressed to argue that there were any damages. Yes, Raymond will miss ice time, but his injury was from hitting the wall, not from skating off the ice. And as I just said, it’s impossible to know if skating off made it worse. Most significantly, damages don’t exist unless there’s a plaintiff to claim them. There can’t be malpractice unless Raymond makes a claim for it.

So is Burnstein guilty of medical malpractice? No. Clearly not. If you’re not convinced, then maybe a quick discussion of consent will help.

Consent: Wherein medical providers would rather not assault people.

In order to administer treatment to a patient, a health care provider must first obtain that patient’s informed consent (unless the patient is unable to provide consent and the treatment is absolutely required, in which case consent is implied). Informed consent consists of informing the patient of:

  • Their diagnosis (to the best of the provider’s knowledge at that time) – In Raymond’s case, it would be as simple as Burnstein telling him that he could have a back injury.
  • The treatment or procedure that’s indicated and its risks/benefits (spinal immobilization to prevent any movement in the spinal column).
  • Any alternative treatments and its risks/benefits (not really applicable here).
  • The risks/benefits of refusing the treatment (Risk: making it worse. Benefit: full spinal is uncomfortable).

If your patient doesn’t consent to the treatment and is in possession of their faculties (not drunk, not high, not a minor, not head injured, etc), and you treat them anyway, then you’ve just committed medical battery. That’s a real thing, and people get sued for it. It’s defined as violating a patient’s rights to direct their medical treatment, and involves the unauthorized touching of a patient. Health care providers are acutely aware of what they can and cannot do, and assessing a patient’s ability to make an informed decision is a skill that comes with time and experience. Any Twitter expert assertion that “They should have just made him get on the spine board!” is frankly ignorant. It’s never that simple. You can’t just make someone do something.

Trying to paint the Raymond incident in black and white strokes isn’t possible. There are a lot of factors involved, and screaming malpractice doesn’t make sense. Yes, Raymond broke his back. Yes, he should have been immobilized. The long and the short of it is that Burnstein knew that, and more than likely tried to make it happen. In the end he had to get Raymond off the ice and into treatment, and when he was transported to the hospital it was reportedly in full spinal immobilization.

Still not happy? The Globe and Mail had a few experts of their own opine on the incident, among them a spinal surgeon and a physiotherapist. You’ll notice that one of the physicians in the article states that “…the team should err on the side of caution and insist he be taken off on a stretcher” – didn’t I say something about this not being black and white? Again this comes down to one’s ability to convince/cajole/bully the patient into doing what’s appropriate. In Raymond’s case, it seems like it just didn’t work.

Raymond’s Injury

Raymond suffered a compression fracture of the L5 (lumbar aka lower back) vertebrae. Per Vancouver GM the fracture is through the belly of the vertebrae, which is to say the big fat round part in the front.

Here’s what’s broken.

These fractures can be managed through injection of special cement into the vertebrae, or surgery to immobilize the bone from the inside through the placement of plates or rods, although this is generally a last resort.  Most often this is treated with a back brace to immobilize the spine, pain medication, time, rest, and physical therapy. The brace generally used in injuries like Raymond’s is the TLSO (thoracic-lumbar-sacral orthosis) brace, which you can conveniently buy on Amazon (although you probably shouldn’t).  Raymond is expected to miss 3 to 4 months.

In case you have no idea what the Andy Sutton reference is all about, here you go. I will never, ever tire of this.  Ever.

– Jo