SYDNEY (Reuters) - At the lowest point in his life, former Australian army engineer Donny Paterson broke into a clinic to steal drugs to feed his morphine addiction, but 2004’s devastating Indian Ocean tsunami saved him from himself.
Paterson, who had a history of chronic injuries and depression, watched in horror as television stations showed the extent of the damage wreaked by the giant waves.
A few days later, he took a plane to Sri Lanka and, with little money and experience, joined three other independent volunteers who formed their own rescue team. The group then drive to Peraliya, a devastated village some 90 km (56 miles) from Colombo, and their actions helped to save hundreds of lives.
The efforts of Paterson and his group were documented in the award-winning film, “The Third Wave,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in 2007. A year later, actor Sean Penn became its executive producer and it was screened at Cannes, where Paterson also walked the red carpet.
Paterson’s story, “No Ordinary Bloke” which he co-wrote with author Neil Cadigan, was published this month by HarperCollins Australia. He spoke to Reuters recently about the book.
Q: What happened to make you feel so, in your words, helpless, physically, spiritually and emotionally?
A: “A combination of things — my medical discharge from the army, injuries I had sustained while in the army and a move to a new place where we really didn’t know anybody. I suffered from depression for about the last 20 years. As a result of those things, I was in a pretty bad place at that point in my life and it took a tsunami to get me out of it.
There was Donny Paterson, a real down-to-earth, pretty decent guy, loved the army, loved his family, had a bad injury in the army and got addicted to morphine and then became druggy Donny. I’m not real proud of what happened in those days, but I’m not making excuses. I was pretty sick at the time but I was in denial, I guess. The morphine got hold of me. That part of my life is behind me.”
Q: So how did you get the courage to jump on a plane?
A: “I think it was definitely spiritual. I’m not religious, but I think it was a higher power that just awakened something in me. Australia was sending relief to Indonesia, so I knew I had to get to Sri Lanka and I knew I had to get to Galle, those were the only two things I knew. Of course, there was a bit of fear and trepidation.”
Q: You described yourself as self-centered. Was the journey to Sri Lanka about saving lives or saving Donny Paterson?
A: “It was about helping others at that time but it turned out it helped me as well. Initially my intention was to get over there and see what I could do for other people and if I could help one person and one family, then it would be well worth the trip, but it turned out to be much more than that. The people in the village were starving. But they were so resilient. That helped me see that I’ve got a grand life and healthy kids.
When I turn on the tap, water comes out, turn on the switch a light comes on. These people had absolutely nothing, yet they could still smile and be loving to their families. I’m not cured but I’m much better than I was. If I start feeling blue, which I still do, I just cast my mind back to a place in Sri Lanka and those people there and that seems to get me out of the rut pretty quickly these days.”
Q: How does a former soldier who described himself as a “dead-beat dad” get to walk a red carpet in Cannes?
A: “It’s truly amazing isn’t it! I met (documentary film director) Alison Thomson at the baggage carousel in Colombo. I ended up teaming up her and two others. She documented our experience and made a film which ended up in Sean Penn’s hands. He happened to be the president of the jury of the Cannes Film Festival last year. When he saw the film, he loved it and made special dispensation for it to be shown at the festival not in any category, just the presidential screening. I was given a plane ticket and picked up in Paris and driven to the Cannes Film Festival — from a dead-beat dad to Cannes in the space of three or four years. So, 2004 changed my life in a lot of ways!”
Q: What advice would you give anyone who feels, like you once did, that there is no hope on the horizon?
A: “The main message is get out of denial and reach out. That’s the best thing I did, reached out to others who were less fortunate than myself. I had lost the sense of belonging, self worth and the people of Sri Lanka reinstalled it in me. There is so much in our own communities, people who are less fortunate. I would suggest volunteering at a local soup kitchen or church.”
Reporting by Pauline Askin, Editing by Miral Fahmy