Andy Charles, the Scia’new First Nation man with nine lives
60-year-old shares how he’s found a new life after traumatic brain injury
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60-year-old shares how he’s found a new life after traumatic brain injury
Andy Charles is the kind of guy who might forget your name but will never miss the chance to tell you about one of the times he narrowly escaped death—and there are several of them.
Sitting across from the 60-year-old at a wooden table at Sea-Isle Rehabilitation Centre in Langford, a day program for people living with acquired brain injuries, you’d never know Charles had a completely different lifestyle in his youth.
Born and raised in Scia’new First Nation (Beecher Bay), Andy is a calming presence to be around. He’s a man who brightens a room with his smile, creates carvings in his spare time, and is often found at the A&W in Westshore Town Centre socializing with close friends.
“Andy is a valued person in our community, as he’ll soon be in the generation of Elders in the community,” says Traci Pateman, Andy’s niece and Scia’new First Nation (Beecher Bay) councillor.
“He’s full of knowledge, like a teacher. If more people could emulate 1% of his outlook on the world today, they would be on a better path. Due to his outer appearance, a lot of people misconstrue who he is.”
When you meet Charles, the initials of former exes tattooed down his arms, scars on his torso, and an amputated right thumb are immediately noticeable. But to unlock stories about his past, you don’t have to do much.
He willingly offers them up.
Charles was only six years old when he and his friend were physically attacked by three non-Indigenous students a year older than them, while walking home from school one day. This would start becoming a common occurrence, and, before long, family members showed him how to defend himself. His uncle taught him how to kick, and his dad taught him how to punch.
Later that same school year, Charles was playing near a stalled school bus near his home. When a ball he was playing with accidentally ended up under the bus, he quickly crawled beneath the vehicle to retrieve it.
Without warning, the driver took off.
Caught in the middle, the tires ran over Charles’ body and broke both sides of his hips. He spent a full year in the hospital as he recovered.
Fast forward to the early ’70s, Charles was sent to Kuper Island School, a residential school on Penelakut Island, formerly Kuper Island, where he spent a handful of his elementary school years. Located just six kilometres off the town of Chemainus, Kuper Island School was closed in 1975, after decades of operation by the Roman Catholic church. Several Indigenous children at the school were subjected to beatings, starvation, and sexual abuse.
“Everyone used to call it Alcatraz,” he says. “The teachers were really prejudiced to Natives back then. They’d just pass us through to get rid of us.”
In his teens, Charles would fight people who bullied him in school. He says if someone asked him if he wanted to fight, he usually took them up on the offer.
His reputation as a fighter led him into several unpredictable situations, including being shot in the back while at a bonfire party with hundreds of attendees at the reserve.
He pulls up his shirt to reveal scars on the left side of his stomach to show where he says several bullets had to be removed from his intestines at the age of 24.
Charles’ list of near-death experiences has earned him the nickname, “Alleycat.”
“Everyone tells me I’ve got nine lives,” he chuckles.
Charles’ lifestyle continued down a path of bar fights and forgettable nights until a life-changing moment shook him to the core. The year was 1992. Charles was hanging out with his friends and decided to go on a beer run. A couple drinks in, the 32-year-old at the time believed he could make it to the liquor store in Langford in no time. He hopped on his motorcycle, with his cousin on the back, and sped off.
The vital moments after that fateful decision remain foggy in his mind even today. The time between getting on his bike and waking up in his hospital bed are gone from his memory. His cousin filled him in on the details, explaining how he crashed into a car along Rocky Point Road, totalled his bike, and knocked over a fire hydrant in the process.
While his cousin walked away with a broken wrist, Charles woke up from a coma in a hospital bed at Gorge Road Hospital six months later. As doctors began explaining how he had suffered from a brain injury, Charles looked down at his right hand and realized his thumb was shorter by an inch. During the crash, his thumb had been so mangled that it had to be amputated down to his knuckle.
Sea-Isle Rehabilitation Centre confirms that Charles suffered multiple injuries, including a traumatic brain injury.
“When I woke up, I just remember saying, ‘I want to go home,’” he says. “Now, I’m just surprised my brain is still working. I looked at that accident as saving my life. I’m happier now.”
Charles says sometimes he misses fighting, but he doesn’t want to go back to his former lifestyle, one that featured illicit drugs and a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants mentality. He’s stopped drinking since the incident nearly 30 years ago.
These days, you’ll find Charles walking along Happy Valley Road or East Sooke Road, sticking his thumb out as he waits for a ride to and from Langford. On a good day, it only takes one or two cars to pass before a vehicle pulls to the side.
“They go, ‘Hey Andy! Longtime, no see. How are you?’” Charles says. “Sometimes I know them, but it's kind of hard to remember.”
Due to his brain injury, the 60-year-old lives with short-term memory loss.
“The chances of him knowing your name after one time you’ve met, even several times, are pretty slim,” says Tina Marsh, rehabilitation services co-ordinator at Sea-Isle. “He might tell you a story he’s told before, but you don’t mind listening to it again. He’s a great storyteller. He’s kind and thoughtful and we’re basically his extended family now.”
Twice a week without fail, Charles drops by the centre to work on his wood carvings, which range from small totem poles to large plaques.
Although Charles only remembers how to carve eagles into totem poles after the accident, he’s trying to work on a larger totem pole the length of his arm, which will feature a thunderbird. With each new creation, he’s reminded of his uncle who taught him how to carve.
“I don’t know who gave it, but somebody gave me knives after the accident and said, ‘Why not start carving again?’ So I did.”
Marsh pointed out that every time a new employee comes to work, Charles gifts them with a personal carving, welcoming them to the Sea-Isle family. He gave Marsh a totem pole the size of her hand when she first arrived, and later, when she got married, a plaque with two eagles in the sky flying towards a heart.
Marsh says most patients come in with a few goals to accomplish, such as getting a job or improving a skill. Unlike most others, Charles has spent nearly 25 years at the centre, making new friends, working on his wood-carving skills, and sharing his stories with anyone who will listen.
One of the ways Charles has been able to connect with new people in the community has been through a Facebook page, which the team at Sea-Isle helped him set up to sell his wood carvings. It was launched in early May after Charles heard that people were posting to social media talking about the man who hitchhikes to Langford.
“It warms my heart to see so many people that are not related to us that accept him,” Pateman says.
“People are afraid of his appearance from his accidents, with all the scars, and they don’t think that they should take that extra moment out of their day to get to know him or befriend him.”
Pateman explains that Andy has been a victim of older First Nations stereotypes. She hears rumours of “the man that hitchhikes into town just to get his next drink,” when in reality, all he’s thinking about is getting to work on his next carving.
The biggest misconception about people with brain injuries is that it directly affects the person’s intelligence, Marsh says. In fact, the injury has nothing to do with intelligence but rather affects cognitive functions and how we access or organize that information.
“The only way I talked before was with these,” Charles says, raising his hands. “I used to be really quiet and just fight. Now, I can talk to people. No more fighting, no more blood.”