Fisherman finds strength in culture after losing foot

Denise Titian, June 7, 2019

David Charleson, 61, is in good spirits and has come to terms with the amputation of his left foot following a fishing accident. He credits Nuu-chah-nulth culture for his strength and always keeps his headband within reach. (Denise Titian photo)

Victoria, BC — 

He’s survived residential school, drug addiction and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – he’s even survived the 1964 tsunami that washed away the Hesquiaht village at Hot Springs Cove; so it didn’t come as a surprise that he popped to the surface of the ocean like a cork after a near-death fishing accident.

In the summer of 2018 the commercial sockeye fishing season had opened and 61-year-old David Charleson was out in Barkley Sound fishing with family aboard the Princess Colleen. But on the second set of the day Charleson nearly lost his life in a freak accident

“I was the beach man and we were setting the net,” Charleson recalled. Everything was fine until he heard the sickening crack behind him.

Charleson described for Ha-Shilth-Sa how the accident happened. “It was July 3, maybe the fourth, we went out to Pocahontas we call it, near Kildonan, to catch our quota.”

Charleson had been part of a four-man crew, including his older brother, Connie, the skipper and his nephew Greg. Because sockeye migrate close to shore, fishermen anchor nets onshore.

Dave’s job was to tie the net line to the beach and release it when signaled to do so by the skipper, who is running the big boat. His nephew Greg ran the skiff.

“I was on beach by myself, Greg was the skiff man, Connie, skipper tells me when to release the line, he just waves to me,” said Dave.

“I was on the rocks, watching the beach line coming towards me; it was getting pulled by the running line, and I’m yelling, ‘C’mon, c’mon!’ and I hear a big crack,” he shared. The boulder that he had strapped his line to came tumbling down; it had broken due to the pressure of the lines pulling on it.

“It’s coming towards me, it’s a big boulder. I tried to jump but it caught my foot and I ended up in the water,” said David, adding that he went down quite a ways with the rock that toppled him over.

He remembered the sounds he could hear while underwater.

“I could hear awful roaring when the rock came off my foot, it sounded like a freight train under water. I could hear another sound, the motor from the skiff, super loud underwater,” he said, adding that he could see the skiff from underwater coming to him and he feared being hit by the propeller.

Greg’s timing was perfect; he arrived just as Dave surfaced.

“I came up from the water screaming, telling my nephew my leg is broken real bad,” he remembered. Getting aboard the skiff was another challenge with only one good leg along with Greg’s efforts to help while keeping the skiff from hitting the rocks.

“I told him that I was getting weak and that he should grab my broken leg to pull me aboard,” said Charleson.

Dave was wearing sweat pants that day and when Greg attempted to pull him up by grabbing his pants they would only stretch.

“We weren’t getting anywhere and I just got a wedgie,” he chuckled.

Greg was finally able to pull his uncle over the side of the skiff and get him back to the big boat. The skiff was hoisted aboard, keeping Dave in the skiff for the duration of the trip because moving him caused too much pain and there was no pain medication to be had.

Dave suffered the entire two-hour run to the hospital in Port Alberni.

“I screamed like hell and the guys on the other side of canal could hear me screaming,” he said.

They did not know the extent of his injuries because his foot and lower leg were encased in his gumboot, too swollen to remove from the boot. When his leg was lifted they were horrified to see bloody saltwater pouring out the back of the boot, filling the bottom of the skiff with bloody salt water.

Eventually, Dave cut his boot off, revealing exposed broken bones in his lower leg and ankle. The bleeding was so bad that they had to apply a tourniquet.

“The doctors in Port Alberni told me they were going to cut my foot off; I said there’s no f’ing way you’re taking my leg – it can be fixed,” said Charleson. He was sent to Nanaimo General Hospital where he underwent surgery to save his leg.

Nearly three months later he was released from hospital and on the mend. But Charleson was reinjured when he slipped and landed on his bad leg. The new injury was surgically repaired with bone and skin grafts and he was released two days before Christmas.

But his ordeal wasn’t over. In early May he developed an infection in his scar tissue and discovered that he had contracted the super bug, MRSA, a germ which is resistant to most common antibiotics.

Royal Jubilee Hospital doctors and Charleson fought valiantly to save his foot and lower leg, but it wasn’t to be. A surgeon told him that he has issues with hardware and skin grafts and that he’d probably have more freedom with a prosthetic (artificial limb). On May 20 Dave consented to the amputation of his left foot.

“I’m battling;” he said, “my cultural spirit is getting weak; worried that I can’t dance anymore,” Charleson told Ha-Shilth-Sa. He is known as one of Hesquiaht’s best dancers.

“He’s the best dancer, in my humble opinion, in Nuu-chah-nulth territory,” said friend Mary Holmes, coordinator for UBC’s Urban Aboriginal Community Kitchen.

Holmes met Charleson in Vancouver and recruited him to help teach DTES aboriginal elders to prepare fish for a smokehouse that was built on campus.

“We invited him to help us cut fish for a smokehouse session and he wound up leading the workshop, teaching them things he learned from his mother,” said Holmes.

Charleson continued with more smokehouse sessions, teaching dozens of children, youth and elders how to prepare fish. Through his work there he came in contact with Joleen Mitton, founder of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion who relies on Charleson for cultural advice in her work.

He and his father have helped his nephew Greg prepare for an aits tuthla (Coming of Age) ceremony for Greg’s daughter.

“I talk to elders and it’s important for me to do cultural things properly,” Charleson said. “I do a lot of practicing and I had the greatest teachers ever, in the Hesquiaht elders.”

Charleson said that he would listen to the elder ladies talk about the proper way women should dance alongside the hinkeets dancers.

Charleson called himself a magnet for spiritual things. He shared a story a friend that was fearful about having a kidney transplant. Charleson shared his teachings of not giving up, of fighting with a warrior spirit.

“He’s alive today after his kidney transplant,” said Charleson.

A survivor of the DTES streets, Charleson admitted that he has an addictions counsellor coming in to see him regularly. He is aware that the strong pain medication he takes puts him at risk for relapse.

“I don’t want to end up back on the street and in addiction,” he said. “I have to have the pain medication but don’t want to end up addicted again.”

Coming to terms with the loss of his lower leg, Dave turns to his warrior spirit.

“My strong spirit is telling me I’m going to dance again. [The prosthetic leg is] going to be a new part of me and I’m going to learn how to dance with it,” he vowed.

Nearly a full year after the accident, Dave faces at least a year of rehabilitation and finding a suitable place to call home. His medical bills are being taken care of workman’s compensation but the living allowance is low. He called his fishing crew his heroes for saving him.

“My future is just working on getting well and staying with the culture because the culture does more for healing than the medicine I am taking; there is no future without culture,” said Charleson.