Waking up after a catastrophic work injury to learn his left arm and much of his right leg were gone was not the worst moment for Mike Rousselle. No, the worst of it came after he was released from hospital and the fear and uncertainty of all that lay ahead began to sink in.
Learning to live after a catastrophic work injury
“My first week home was probably the toughest, realising this was reality,” Rousselle, now 32, recalled in a telephone interview earlier this month from Cranbrook, where he lives with his wife, Brett, and two children.
“I had seen pictures of myself [before the accident] and realized I am not going to be the person that I was, and I loved that person. I was just hung up on that.”
Rousselle had yet to meet Stearns Hodge, a man whose own survival would prove so valuable.
Like Rousselle, Hodge is a double amputee. He was a young husband and father of three when, in 1984, he lost his left arm and right leg above the knee while working as a building contractor in Nelson, B.C.
Hodge remembers the searing pain he felt as thousands of volts of electricity coursed through his body after an aluminum ladder he was holding snagged a live power line.
“Basically, you cook from the inside out,” Hodge said of the damage to his body.
Rousselle may be the only person this side of the Rockies who knows what that feels like, and lived to tell.
In 2009, Rousselle, an experienced power lineman, was 15 metres up a utility pole when his body was hit with 14,400 volts from a loose electrical wire.
“It probably should have killed me from the injures that I suffered,” he said of the horrific accident.
His next memory was waking up in a Calgary hospital, his left arm amputated below the shoulder. He lost his right leg above the knee a few days later, after enduring four unsuccessful surgeries to save it.
Each day, he felt himself slipping further into despair as he thought of everything he had lost.
Soccer and hockey, both passions before the accident, were now things of the past, he believed.
He worried his wife would no longer find him attractive, how the burden of the household would now fall to her, and about how he could possibly play with his children.
The marriage had already been tested in 2006 when the couple suffered the devastating death of their two-month-old son, Jaxson.
This accident, and the subsequent amputations, just seemed too much for any one family to handle.
It was about then Hodge arrived on the doorstep.
Now 61, Hodge and his wife Janice had heard about Rousselle’s accident through mutual friends and were stunned by the similarities in their stories.
The couple, who live in Summerland, felt a pull to meet the Rousselles in person — to let the younger pair know they understood all the emotions they were feeling and to reassure them that, beyond the anger and the sadness, there was a life well worth living.
“I still remember the day my fears vanished,” Hodge said of his early inspiration in the days following his accident.
“Jan pulled the curtains closed, climbed into [the hospital] bed and put her arms around me. I didn’t have to say a word. When she married me, she promised it would be for better or for worse, and she proved to me that she meant it.”
So they packed up their car and drove 500 kilometres to Cranbrook to pay the Rousselle’s a visit.
The message couldn’t have come at a better time.
“It just kind of made me realize that your attitude has a lot to do with how your outcome is going to be,” Rousselle said, recalling Stearns’ advice to say goodbye to the person he was before and focus on who he was going to become instead.
“It made me think, if I am going to move forward, I have got to stop thinking about the past.”
The meeting made a big impression on Brett, too.
There was something so reassuring in the way Jan helped her husband of 38 years put on his coat as they prepared to leave.
“She [Brett] looked at that and just admired how Jan was still there for him,” Rousselle said.
In the years since the accident, and that fateful afternoon with the Hodges, Rousselle has come a long way. He’s back at work with Arrow Installation, the same company that employed him before the accident, though his role has shifted to one that keeps him firmly on the ground, rather than climbing power poles.
The Rousselle family is also growing. Mike and Brett will adopt their third child in mid-February — a little brother to seven-year-old Montana and three-year-old Jonas.
The hard work of rehabilitation, where he learned to walk again and operate a dynamic prosthetic arm, is mainly behind him, though Rousselle continues to meet with a physical therapist to take on new and different tasks. Cutting-edge advancements in prosthetics have returned to him many of the recreational activities he’s loved all his life, and allowed him to try out a few new ones, like kick-boxing and wakeboarding.
His fear of losing Brett’s devotion, and of never again playing with his kids is long gone. He wrestles with his son, plays hide-and-seek with his daughter and the marriage is stronger than ever.
“My attitude is not to feel limited because of what happened to me,” he said. “I feel like I want to succeed.”
Hodge’s role in Rousselle’s recovery has become something of a legend among WorkSafeBC staff who work with the estimated 1,000 British Columbians who’ve suffered serious, life-changing injuries on the job, including amputations, crushed bones, traumatic head injuries and spinal cord damage.
Jennifer Leyen, director of special care services, said the provincial agency was so inspired by the story, it’s tried to replicate the benefits of peer support using social media and an online discussion board to link newly injured workers, like Rousselle, with those, like Hodge, who can offer first-hand advice and experience.
The program launched Wednesday through a secure extranet site managed by WorkSafeBC. (Canada)
Leyen said the site is meant to be another tool in an injured worker’s recovery.
WorkSafeBC staff members and managers will also be profiled online so clients can come to know more about who they are and why they do the work they do.
“We are asking them [clients] to put themselves on the line and open up, so we have to do the same,” Leyen said.
Hodge likes the idea of online support, but said it’s no replacement for a real, face-to-face encounter.
“It’s that feeling of ‘I’d rather watch a winner than hear about a winner,’” he said.
He remains grateful for all the love and support he received from family, friends and neighbours following the accident. But there was something special about the lessons he took away from the one, brief afternoon meeting with Hodge.
“Other people can give you the same advice, but it’s different when it comes from someone who has gone through the same things you have gone through,” he said.
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