Finding buried treasure
“The first thing I thought of when I was able to take stock of what had happened was, ‘Russell, you've done it now — you’re finished.”
It was a September morning 12 years ago, that Canowindra local Russell Hodge set out from his then home in Broken Hill bound for Dubbo. It was a route he’d ridden on his motorcycle many times.
He’d travelled about 500 kilometres of lonely road and just passed through the tiny village of Hermidale, when a life-changing event took place.
Coming in the other direction, was an elderly farmer, who’d travelled that day from Bathurst. As they approached each other, Russell saw the man’s white ute veer in front of him.
“I thought, what's this guy doing? And by the time I thought that, it was pretty well too late. I wasn't able to get out of the way quick enough. And yeah, there was a pretty serious collision,” said Russell.
As Russell later found out, the driver had suffered a heart attack and lost consciousness behind the wheel just at the moment they crossed paths. The vehicle struck the right side of Russell’s motorcycle, tearing open the engine and his right leg with it.
“It was amazing he wasn’t killed himself. When he regained consciousness on the side of the road, he wasn't even aware that he'd hit anybody. He was pretty distraught when he found out,” said Russell.
“He certainly didn't intend any ill will toward anybody. It was just one of those things that can happen on the roads, but it very nearly killed me.
“He came back to me, sat down and said, ‘I don't know what happened’ and we just held hands. I was trying to put on a brave face kind of saying ‘well, it'll be all right’, but I was pretty certain I was finished.”
Five days later, doctors at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital had stabilised Russell’s condition, but it was too late to save his leg and a very different future now loomed before him.
At first it was simply dealing with the pain, but then it was the more difficult challenge of adjusting to life as an amputee.
“That was hard; the frustrations of things that you used to do without any trouble, now you have to think about everything, learning to walk again, It's not straightforward anymore. You know, it's everything has to be calculated, thought through and there's a whole new learning of how to do life.”
Mentally too, it was a challenge. Russell said there was a period where he would relive the accident and struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
But, with the help of his friends, his family and his faith, Russell reinvented himself for his new life.
It would be easy to understand if anyone in Russell’s situation felt some bitterness about the hand they had been dealt, but he doesn’t see it that way — quite the opposite, in fact.
“I’ve always seen myself as ‘divinely altered’, so not so much disabled, but just altered,” said Russell, who got back on a motorbike as soon as he was able to.
“My life has changed pretty drastically, but some beautiful things have come out of this whole thing and I was pretty confident that that they would. I think my faith in the Christian story — that there's hope and there's goodness and there's love and there's bigger things to be alive for or die for than just myself — I think that gave me a lot of courage.”
Learning how to accept and embrace change and become comfortable with who you are, is now a message Russell shares with teenagers at an annual camp he founded in 2011.
“I noticed there were a lot of activities for old amputees and kids, but not much for teenagers, so I approached the Amputee Association and put the idea of a teenager's camp to them,” he said.
“We fly kids from all over Australia to Amp Camp. It has created a community of young people who no longer feel isolated and alone, that there's a community they belong to and they can learn to be confident and not embarrassed by the difference and not to see themselves as disabled but just different. It's beautiful. It's one of the most wonderful highlights of my year.”
And these days, he even plays up on his ‘divine alteration’ and performs as a peg-legged pirate for school children, teaching his message to look for the good in life and what’s truly important.
“The way I like to frame it is that my ability is different: I can't run, but not everybody has the ability to do a peg-leg pirate show,” says Russell, who performs under the name Captain Barnacles.
There's a deeper, richer more wonderful treasure that comes out of our character
and spills out onto other people
“I communicate themes like resilience and anti-bullying, positive behaviour and character. My aim is to bring hope and meaning to kids, give them some real fun and joy, but have a powerful message for them that they discover along the way.
“The Captain, he discovers that the real treasure in life is not the gems and jewels. Most of us are out there hunting the gems and jewels, but that's not the real treasure. There's a deeper, richer more wonderful treasure that comes out of our character and spills out onto other people. That's what I'm wanting to bring, a bit of goodness.”
‘Captain Barnacles’ has now appeared at a number of schools around the Central West and has been a hit with his young audiences.
“Kids don't usually see a guy on a peg leg,” said Russell, who also uses the show to raise awareness about amputees and people with disabilities.
“In the treasure chest, I've got my other legs and so it's an educational thing as well in terms of disability awareness or ability awareness. It’s getting kids aware that when you see someone who's got a difference… they may not be able to do everything you can, but they've learned to think, they have to problem solve just to make life work.
“So, don't be shy of them, but celebrate their difference with them. That's really what I want to do; teach kids how to how to celebrate that they are who they are.”