Goodfellas • 5/6, 8 p.m.
As a young adult, I remember a book Mom kept by her bedside, “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” I’m certain the premise of the book must have been to give a sense of hope and understanding to life’s trials and disappointments. I’m even more certain my mom found peace within its pages as we traveled the country together, during her time serving in the Air Force. I bring this up because it reminds me of former Cape Fear Community College student Leo Hodson and the accident he fights to overcome daily.
During March 2009 Hodson was sitting on a second-floor balcony railing trading jokes and enjoying the company of close friends when he leaned backward, laughing. From 18 feet off the ground, Hodson did a back flip and landed face forward on his chest and neck, leaving him paralyzed and unable to breath. Shockingly, his diaphragm had shrunk to the size of a fingernail.
I had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Hodson last week at his new home in Greensboro, where he lives with his dad and stepmom. Our conversation was nothing short of uplifting and inspirational.
“When I was on the ground, I remember looking into the woods and seeing the trees,” he recalled. “It was like a snapshot. Then there was a rustling. My friend said, ‘Hey what do you want me to do?’ All I could get out was, ‘Please … please … please.’ Next thing I knew, the ambulance was there.”
After several grueling surgeries, Hodson eventually set his sight on the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia, a specialty center for spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. However, another battle loomed ahead: He had to be off ventilation completely. In the week that followed, Hodson was engulfed in pain but persevered with determination. He pushed himself to breathe on his own—at first only in three-hour increments. Then he strived for six. He eventually reached 12 hours, and before the week was done, Hodson accomplished breathing on his own for a full day. Among the most stressful medical battles he still faces is Autonomic Dysreflexia, a reaction of the involuntary nervous system to overstimulation—the feeling of pain in an area of Hodson’s body that is otherwise numb. Often these episodes can lead to a stroke.
“These are the complications I need to recognize and adjust to,” he said. “This is how life is going to be. I remember crying non-stop [from facing] so much uncertainty.”
What’s not uncertain is the amount of support Wilmington is prepared to give Hodson as he fights to gain his independence back. Thanks to Tim Vandenberg, founder of Wilmington’s Martini Ball and, Jeff Billiter, owner of Goodfella’s Nite Club located downtown, this year’s 2011 Martini Ball is dedicated to Hodson’s inspirational journey of survival and progression.
“The first Martini Ball we did was in 2009,” Tim Vandenberg said. “Both my parents died from cancer, so the idea was to help the American Cancer Society in their Relay for Life. I thought: There aren’t a lot of formal events for young adults and professionals, and everyone seems to like martinis. Why not combine them for a great cause each year?”
The Martini Ball offers all-you-can-drink martinis and light hors d’oeuvres for an easy donation of $20, all of which goes toward Hodson’s medical needs. This year Goodfella’s is proud to be the event venue.
“Although we’re a bar we can do more than serve drinks,” Billiter said. “There’s been such a black cloud over downtown bars as a whole. I want to tell the community we aren’t all bad.” Impressively, 15 of Goodfella’s employees will selflessly donate their time to work the event. “We’re a big family here. We all just had to jump on board to help,” Billiter proudly asserted.
Cosmos, grapetinis, appletinis and good old-fashioned vodka martinis will be on the menu. The Cape Fear Community College Jazz Band will jive away on the third floor, and a DJ will spin records on the second. Both Billiter and Vandenberg believe the benefit, hosted on Friday, May 6 at 8 p.m., is more important than ever, because this year’s goal encompasses a local face.
“You can tell people it’s important to get involved,” Vandenberg stated, “but here’s a case to help out someone who’s inspirational within our community. It’s great to support national causes, but this time it’s about a guy here who needs help.”
Monies raised will be directed toward equipment Hodson needs, specifically an apparatus called a Standing Frame, which Hodson’s health insurance does not cover. It will help prevent ankle, knee and hip contractions, and decrease abnormal muscle tone while reducing spasticity. The Standing Frame will also help Hodson maintain bone density and prevent osteoporosis. Most importantly, it will build cardiovascular endurance. In short, it will help Hodson accomplish the simple task of breathing.
Already back to school at UNCG, Hodson spoke from a positive place devoid of anger or bitterness, despite the carefree life he enjoyed before his accident. Hodson lived in every burrow of Wilmington then. He made films every year for the One Take Film Festival, worked at Cruiser’s car wash, Jungle Rapids, and was active in student government and the work study studio at Cape Fear Community College.
“Everyone in the community always treated me so well,” he reflected. His days are now filled with 120-minute drives to Race to Walk, a specialized rehabilitation facility located in Mooresville, North Carolina, where he undergoes intense physical therapy.
“Wilmington is still very much a part of me,” he noted. “I want everyone to know I’m trying my hardest. Everyone in Wilmington deserves to see me trying. I’m thankful for what I have. It could be worse.”
Ever optimistic—something inherent in his blood, even landing him the Optimism Award in eighth grade—Hodson’s spirits are high. “My goal is to get back on my own and to be independent,” he said. “Breathe in life to the fullest. I don’t know where my wheels are going to roll me, but my situation has opened my eyes to other disabilities and Disability Rights. Hopefully, one day, it will bring me back to Wilmington.”
Tickets to the Wilmington Martini Ball are $20 in advance, available at Goodfella’s or Java Dog Downtown, or $25 at the door. Folks can follow Hodson’s progress or make a tax deductible donation via his website, www.leohodson.com. Visit him on Facebook, too.