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Teacher returns after Indian crash ordeal

An English teacher who was run down by a teenage motorcyclist while volunteering at an Indian orphanage has returned to Korea two months after the accident.

Karabeth Burton’s recovery was made possible in part by the fund-raising efforts of her friends in Korea and elsewhere, led by fellow Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, English teacher Sunil Mahtani, who was traveling with her and scraped together about 40 million won ($36,000) for medical expenses.

Recovery from her injuries ― serious brain injuries as well as others to her left arm and leg ― was a frustrating and sometimes frightening ordeal for Burton, but she said she was happy to be back in Korea.

“I just can’t believe that I’ve been through so much and to be talking about it now is amazing.”

The subsequent recovery was difficult. Mahtani had to return to Korea, and he said the man he entrusted to help in her recovery swindled them out of money and told divisive lies about the other people trying to help her.

That was mitigated by Burton’s character.

“I never thought that this day would come. They kept on saying ‘you have to stay’ and I was decrepit,” she explained. “And they said, ‘You’re not ready to go home.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God. I am so ready.’

“The doctors laughed at me when I said I wanted to get out of hospital by March 8,” she added.
Karabeth Burton (left) and Sunil Mahtani pose at Incheon International Airport on March 23, shortly after Burton’s return from hospital in India. (Paul Kerry/The Korea Herald)
Karabeth Burton (left) and Sunil Mahtani pose at Incheon International Airport on March 23, shortly after Burton’s return from hospital in India. (Paul Kerry/The Korea Herald)

She came out of hospital just a few days later than that, arriving in Korea on March 23, but the reasons behind her release were dramatic and not all positive.

The priest who had been assigned to look after Karabeth ― who they had found through James Chacko, the pastor who runs the orphanage that Mahtani has known for a long time ― took her out of hospital too early.

He had promised to take her to a rehabilitation center, but instead discharged her against the advice of her doctors and took her to a hotel. He left her there with no contact numbers to use, instead contacting Chacko and Mahtani’s uncle in India with the message “Seagreen 602.”

They eventually worked out that Seagreen was a hotel and not a recovery center, and Burton was back in contact with Mahtani two days later. When they contacted the rehabilitation center, no arrangements had been made.

They discovered that the pastor had pocketed the money entrusted to him to pay for it, as well as some more funds for private nursing and other expenses. Mahtani said that they were still working out what had been paid for but that the pastor had taken at least $1,000. The final total could be much more, he added, although they still have enough to cover her medical bills so far.

Burton and Mahtani both said that in retrospect his actions were suspicious, but that at the time they had only mild misgivings, until the final day.

“I knew he had some sort of malicious motive when I went to the hotel,” said Burton. “And I found out that I wasn’t supposed to be discharged and he took me out.”

She describes her time in the hotel as horrible. The staff there was polite, but she was trapped and isolated, with no way of contacting anyone she knew.

“It was like being in prison all over again. That was the way I felt when I was in the hospital: ‘I’ve got to get out. My God!’”

Her description of the hospital as prison shows the mix of feelings. Burton clearly has gratitude to the doctors and others who helped her but is also glad to be out of the confines of the hospital. She said the medical constraints there frustrated her.

“I told the doctors at the hospital that I was going to do cartwheels down the hallway,” she said. “I tried...They were watching me like hawks, I couldn’t do anything.”

She is still restless and frustrated. Her head has healed well, but she was being kept in for a wound in her leg, which is still to heal, and she has restricted mobility. She says that despite barely being able to walk, she wants to go hiking.

Perhaps more significantly, she is frustrated at losing her job. Mahtani explained that the Changwon education office has said it will find her a job when she recovers, and her F-4 visa allows her to work from home, but she would really like to be able to be back in front of class.

“The doctor told me that they don’t want me on my feet, that I need to get a job where I can sit,” she said. “But I love what I do in Korea. I don’t like the idea of not getting up and going to work every day.”

Particularly, she would like to return to her old neighborhood, where she moved in 2008 for her first job after leaving work as an inner city public school teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina.

As well as her former school ― the teachers there raised 1 million won for her recovery ― the area itself has come to be like home for her.

“I love the location, it’s quiet, I love my school, I love the students, so I just can’t imagine being anywhere else,” she said. “When I first moved to Korea I hated where I lived. Then it kind of grew on me.”

Burton says she harbors no bad feelings about the accident. She is not interested in pursuing charges against the boy who mowed her down, and instead has become close to his family. She and Mahtani both talked about a touching time when the father ― who speaks no English ― cut up apples and fed them to her piece by piece.

The two hope to complete their trip to India, including the Taj Mahal.

The experience was a tough one for Burton, particularly in terms of patience and total dependence on other people, but she says she has learned to accept help more ― although she would clearly rather be the one helping.

“I’ve been so independent, not having to rely on anyone to do anything for me. I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like asking people to do things,” she said. “Well, I don’t feel so bad about asking people to do things for me anymore.”

For Mahtani, it has been encouraging to see so many people get to help someone in trouble, even if they didn’t know Burton personally. He said it showed how social media could be positive.

“This is the best use for Facebook,” he said. “It’s not just a stupid site for surfing and playing games.”

By Paul Kerry (