‘Went out for a ride one day to go out to lunch. Had a good job, had a good life, had three little kids, bought a new home. Life was looking pretty good.’
When Russell had his accident in 2004, he was just 32. Married with three children under the age of five and a new home, Russell felt he was pretty much ‘bullet proof’.
A motorcycle enthusiast, he would often go out for a ride on the weekends as a way to relax and catch up with mates. ‘I worked with a group of guys who all rode motorcycles—Harley Davidson’s and that sort of thing.’
Russell’s wife Vicky says it was a Sunday morning when Russell announced he was going out for a ride. Always mindful of the risks when he was on the road, she kept herself busy around the home, but eventually decided to phone and make sure he was OK.
‘Finally I made the phone call and there was silence. I rang again and they passed the phone to Russell and he said: “I’m sorry, I’ve come off the bike.”’
Coming up to a set of lights, Russell found himself jammed in the merge lane by another motorcyclist and a four-wheel drive that wouldn’t give way.
He had no choice but to emergency brake in loose gravel in the gutter, and his foot became stuck in the footpegs. He was dragged about 2 light poles down the road.
‘I flipped over on to the road. Missed oncoming traffic luckily. Stood up, didn’t know what was wrong, thought yep, everything’s OK, then looked down and saw my foot and saw a lot of blood.
‘I staggered over and fell on the footpath by which stage my friend that went through had turned around and come back and then the phone rang.’
Russell was taken to Westmead Hospital by ambulance. It was the beginning of two years of rehabilitation that started with an operation to save his foot.
‘I remember walking in and they had his foot in a box,’ said Vicky. ‘And there was blood dripping down and a specialist came over and said we don’t know if we can save it … we’re going to have to get together with the other surgeons and see what we can do.
‘We had a mortgage, we had three kids to bring up, what was going to happen with his work?
‘I didn’t know whether this foot was going to be amputated or how the accident was going to affect us. I suppose you just don’t know unless you’re in that situation just how bad it can be.’
By taking a large lateral muscle from his back and attaching it to his ankle joint, the surgeons did save Russell’s foot. Skin grafts were taken from his hip, external pins were inserted in his leg and then the major focus was on avoiding infection. Infection would mean amputation.
Four weeks after the accident, Russell returned home.
Unable to walk or look after himself, it was Vicky who had to manage the household.
‘I had three young kids who were demanding of me and one that I had to get to school,’ said Vicky. ‘And I had Russell who couldn’t do anything for himself.
Vicky says Russell’s accident ‘affected everything’.
‘Even today, just the simple things in life like kicking a ball are impossible. We went to the snow last season and Russell couldn’t come because he can’t afford to slip and damage that foot. The accident will affect us forever.’
Russell says quite matter-of-factly it is difficult not to be able to kick a soccer ball with his kids, or just do all that physical romping fathers love to do with sons. A keen bushwalker, Russell says the uneven terrain makes this a no-go now.
But without any self-pity, he says that is just the way it is.
‘I can talk and show but I can’t do that bomb, that chip and chase. It just doesn’t always work out that way.’
After two years of intense physiotherapy to get his leg and hip working properly, and the leg muscle to work to lift the ankle—and what Vicky describes as a ‘very, very long recovery’—Russell is now able to walk and is working again. ‘I’m doing OK,’ he says.
After six months back in his old company working again as a safety product specialist—and with good will on all sides—Russell realised it wasn’t going to work. He couldn’t manage the stairs and large yards that had to be traversed. Then the global financial crisis hit. He decided to ‘get an education’ and went to TAFE where he recently achieved a Diploma in OHS.
Russell is now working with K&S Freighters as its NSW OHS Advisor.
From the get go Russell said the company wasn’t concerned at all about his disability; they just wanted the right person for the job. They wanted someone who was passionate about work health and safety, and that is what they found in Russell.
‘I was very worried about being knocked back on jobs because I might limp in to an interview and another gentleman might not … and that is a massive point. I have actually had to provide my physical capability assessment and still got knocked back because at the end of the day my physical limp and sore leg altered how interviewers saw me,’ said Russell.
He says he’ll never forget when he got the phone call from K&S saying ‘‘Russell we’d like to offer you the position”. ‘For me it was like the galaxy—not just the world—was lifted off my shoulders because someone was saying: “Russell we are going to give you this chance”.
‘K&S was realistic about my situation and didn’t look at me as someone with a disability that could be a hindrance, but as someone who had the experience and the passion. I couldn’t have asked for a better position and the guys and bosses there have been nothing but supportive.’
Russell’s experience has made him a firm believer in early intervention—in getting injured workers back ‘sooner rather than later’.
‘Just get them back for two days a week rather than waiting six weeks before full return. It’s better for everybody. It makes the employee feel secure in the fact something is being done and their future is secure. Early intervention programs are great, they give the worker as normal a lifestyle as possible.’
Russell believes ‘nobody will have a more dedicated worker than one who has returned from injury’.
He also says without the support of his friends and family he wouldn’t have made it. He believes he and his family have come out stronger for the adversity they had to overcome. It’s a strength Russell is keen to pass on to his kids.
‘I’ll teach the kids that it’s not how hard you get knocked down, it’s how you get back up.’