‘Transplanted’ Chopper Pilot
The Ben Whyte Story
By Bob Whyte
…Spring 2001 My son Ben was a bit of a “wild” teen – wild in the sense of being a “risk-taker” or some would say a “dare-devil”. He loved living life on the edge. He was excited by bungee jumping, climbing mountains and steep rock faces, jumping from the highest cliff and soaring the longest distance while snow skiing and boarding, high speed water-skiing and 20 knots per hour windsurfing to name just a few. He had a dream of some day becoming a helicopter pilot and flying clients all over British Columbia on eco-tours. For my son there was only one speed in life and that was “full speed”!
…Early in the afternoon on Boxing Day, December 26, 1993, when Ben was 21, he was hurdling down the ski slopes of Mt. Washington on Vancouver Island, British Columbia at his usual‘break-neck’ speed with his friends. Suddenly, without warning, he ‘caught an edge’ and with horrendous force crashed into the ice encrusted snow and lay motionless. His friends and other passing skiers stopped to check on him and noticed Ben was in considerable pain and unable to move. The Ski-Patrol came by and very gently moved him by sleigh-stretcher to the medical shack at the base of the ski hill. Ben was vomiting continuously by then and turning a shade of ‘sickly’ green.
…With one of his pals and a paramedic attending they proceeded down the mountain by ambulance to the twin cities of Courtenay/Comox and the regional hospital. We, his parents, were in Victoria (150 miles away) at the time and received a phone call (the kind you hope never to receive but know in your gut you could receive, anytime, with a son like Ben). It was around dinner time that evening and Ben’s friend Chris was saying, “Ben had an accident on the mountain, broke his collarbone, appeared to be alright -according to the young attending doctor- and could be home as early as the next day”. Of course we were shocked by this news but somewhat comforted to know our son was apparently not seriously injured. The next call, later that evening, was downright scary. “He is seriously injured and will have to be medi-vac’d by air ambulance (jet) to Victoria General Hospital immediately!”
…We drove, with sick feelings in the pits of our stomachs, to the hospital and waited at Emergency for his arrival. The ambulance arrived and they wheeled him into Emergency. He looked extremely weak, very sick and a little frightened. So were we! The ambulance attendants informed us that at the Comox hospital an older doctor had passed our son in the hallway and checked him over noting that Ben had little to no pulse whatever in his right arm and shoulder; thus the emergency flight to Victoria.
…Other family members arrived at the hospital to support us all in this emotionally excruciating time in our lives and we waited for the doctors to inform us of Ben’s prognosis. Soon, a vascular surgeon accompanied by a heart surgeon took us aside in the emergency waiting room and very calmly and carefully, with compassion, advised us that Ben’s broken collarbone had nearly severed the sub-clavean (below his collarbone) arteries leading to his heart. The angio-plasty procedure they had just performed indicated that the doctors would have to immediately proceed with open-heart surgery! They also informed us that they may have to temporarily cut off blood flow to Ben’s brain (the carotid artery) during the surgery and that he may suffer some brain damage. Finally, they said they would be working around his vocal-chord nerves and he may suffer partial or permanent damage to his voice; in other words, he may end up speaking in a whisper for the rest of his life. At that point his mother and I were speechless, teary-eyed and emotionally stunned, but we had one more shock to absorb yet. The doctors asked us if we had ever had any knowledge of Ben having kidney disease as it appeared as though his kidneys were functioning at a very low level and could be seriously affected by the imminent surgery. We were not aware of any kidney disease and tried to work our minds around this latest revelation. The next 6 hours while Ben underwent open-heart surgery in the operating room were the longest, most stressful hours of our lives. Those of you who have experienced similar times in your lives know too well the mental anguish that overcomes you. Early that next morning three exhausted surgeons (one vascular, two open-heart) confronted us with the news that our son had come through valiantly- the surgery was a success with no brain or vocal chord damage. Thank God and three wonderful surgeons!
…Ben spent the next ten days in intensive care recovering with determination and courage. During that time we became aware of his kidney disease which was described as PKD (Polycystic Kidney Disease) which simply means “many cysts within the kidneys”. As this disease progresses more and more cysts form in the kidneys and eventually the kidneys are unable to function. At that point our son would have to be hooked up to a kidney dialysis machine for several hours, three days a week, at the nearest dialysis clinic (Victoria). To Ben, a typically fun loving, vibrant young man of 21 this would be like “being in prison” he said. We had no trouble understanding his comments and as his disease progressed over the next couple of years (very painful to watch) we began the process of testing ourselves for the possibility of donating a kidney to him (Living Related Donor’). During this time Ben was assessed by his nephrologist (kidney specialist) and placed on the BC Transplant Society waiting list for a cadavaric kidney. Ultimately this kidney would be from someone who had died tragically and beforehand had discussed their wishes with their family and signed up with the BC Organ Donor Registry. Also, during this period Ben was profoundly disappointed to learn from his doctors that he would not likely be able to ever have medical clearance to obtain a pilot’s license –private or commercial! He became quite angry and was absolutely convinced the doctors were wrong and
he would prove them so.
…My wife Suzanne and I, after several months of testing, were found to be incompatible donors. We were deeply upset as we had both wanted very much to donate one of our healthy kidneys to Ben. Next in line to donate a kidney was our married 27-year-old daughter, Robin, however, she and our son-in-law, Jason, who had one child at the time, were planning to have another. We were concerned about her going through a pregnancy with only one kidney. We had always loved our son-in-law but his offer to give one of his healthy kidneys to Ben, at that time, has to be one of the most generous, kind hearted and loving gestures we have ever known. Jason was absolutely serious and not at all worried about the transplant. He loved his brother-in-law and wanted to get on with the testing for compatibility right away. Incredibly, the tests were positive all the way through and Jason proved to be a perfect match.
…Two years and five months after his skiing accident, in May of 1996, our son Ben and his brother-in-law Jason traveled to Vancouver. In the Vancouver General Hospital on May 15 Jason gave a “gift of love and life” to Ben. Within two short weeks Jason was back home and within 6 weeks he was back to work with his father in the family roofing business. Jason now works in Vancouver as an air traffic controller. Ben’s recovery in Vancouver took about three months. The doctors and nurses at Vancouver General were professional, very competent and simply marvelous. The doctors, nurses, counselors and social workers at the BC Transplant Society were knowledgeable, compassionate and truly wonderful.
…Ben had hardly recovered when he decided to start up his own company. Being from an entrepreneurial family and enjoying hard work he decided to start his own rubbish removal company. He called it “JunkBusters” and after presenting a good business plan to the bank and obtaining a loan he could be seen all around Victoria in his Ford 3 ton truck with hydraulic dump picking up junk and delivering it to the regional waste centre. We were happy for Ben. He was getting on with his life and was able to work hard again, but, we weren’t too excited at the thought of him being immersed in rubbish and filth all day and every day (he worked 10-12 hour days, 6 to 7 days a week). I will explain. When a person has had a transplanted organ, they must take a mix of drugs called “immuno suppressants” twice a day for the rest of their life. These drugs suppress the immune system and don’t allow the body to reject the transplanted organ. They also make the transplant recipient more susceptible to illness and disease, thus our concerns. However, Ben was not to be deterred by his parents’ and his girlfriend’s worries and he carried on, eventually up-grading his truck and his business to a bin removal company. These bins were dropped off and picked up at various construction and rubbish removal sites. By the summer of 1998 he had sold his business and that fall he traveled to Canmore, Alberta to take a 3-month mountain climbing and outdoor adventure course in the
Canadian Rockies near Banff. The course, offered by a company called Yamnuska Mountain School, consisted of white water river kayaking, rock climbing, mountaineering and glacier climbing. Ben excelled at this and was unofficially chosen the leader of his team of 12 by his peers. He was 26 years old at the time and the oldest of his group thereby earning the nickname “Pappy”. In the spring of 1999 he enrolled in the University of Victoria’s Business Administration ‘fast-track’ program and received his certificate. That summer he took up the sport of paragliding and could be seen practicing and floating over the cliffs of the Dallas road waterfront in Victoria. Eventually he earned his flight instructor certificate in paragliding. Finally, after much persistence and a change of doctors, Ben was able to convince the Ministry of Transport medical officers that he was stable enough medically to apply for a fixed wing private pilot license. He received his private pilot license from Victoria Flight Training Centre in July 1999 and truly savoured this accomplishment.
…In the fall of 1999 Ben applied to enter Royal Roads University’s Bachelor of Commerce program in Victoria. This program was a ‘fast track’- two years in one- twelve month course in entrepreneurial management. As he had studied one year at Camosun College after High School, received his certificate in Business Administration at UVIC, ran his own successful business and was a mature student he was accepted. Ben began the course in September 1999 and lived on campus at Royal Roads. He applied for and attained the position of Resident Advisor for the term and graduated in August 2000 with his degree.
…With degree in hand Ben made the decision to follow his dream in life and applied to obtain his commercial helicopter license training with a helicopter company in Campbell River. The training involved 5 months of ground school learning and 100 hours of actual flying and instruction in a Robinson 22 helicopter. The cost of the school plus accommodation was $42,000. Ben took out a bank loan and moved to Campbell River to begin training to realize his life-long dream. There was a hint at the flying school, attended by 4 students including Ben, that there might be a full time job flying with the company at the end of the course. Sensing an opportunity he treated his training period just like a job. He turned up every morning at 7:30 a.m. with the rest of the employees and worked right alongside them until the end of each day. Although he mainly swept floors, washed helicopters, cleaned bathrooms and offices and removed rubbish Ben thoroughly enjoyed being around the business and learning, first hand, all about the industry he would some day be fully involved in.
…Ben passed his written exams and flight tests in January of this year and was honoured with a request by the owners of the company to begin full time employment as a commercial helicopter pilot with their firm on February 1, 2001. He currently trains new students in their ground school requirements and in April begins a flying contract with his new employer taking biologists out to the west coast of Vancouver Island to study bird life and their migration patterns. Right now he is so happy I think he is flying even higher than a helicopter! Ben’s next goal is to become a helicopter pilot instructor with the company he is now employed with.
…As Ben’s father, a self-proclaimed ‘shameless’ son promoter, it is obvious I am extremely proud of him. He has faced so many obstacles in his short life and continues to be positive, determined and committed to his dreams and aspirations. This summer he will marry his high school sweetheart, Simone. She has stood by him steadfastly through his trials and tribulations, and remains his strong supporter and the love of his life. Oh, and yes, his brother-in-law Jason will be the best man at his wedding. May God bless them all in the years ahead.
…(February 2006 Update) Since this story was written Ben has flown nearly 3000 hours on Bell 206’s, Bell Long Rangers and Eurostar helicopters fighting forest fires, heli-skiing in the Canadian Rockies, transporting clients to fishing lodges in the Queen Charlotte and Langara Islands and doing seismic work in the northern BC and northern Alberta oil patch. Ben works for a major Canadian helicopter company and is based here in Sidney, BC. He continues to take his anti-rejection drugs and maintains good mental and physical health. We are blessed.