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'I just live life in pain, it's my price to be alive,' says impaired driving victim years after being struck

Molly Burton was struck by a vehicle driven by a 16-year-old who was impaired in Comox, B.C., on Sept. 11, 2013. (Submitted by Leslie Wells - image credit)
Molly Burton was struck by a vehicle driven by a 16-year-old who was impaired in Comox, B.C., on Sept. 11, 2013. (Submitted by Leslie Wells - image credit)

Molly Burton barely survived catastrophic injuries. And she barely survived the chronic pain, anguish and addiction that followed.

And perhaps the hardest part is that it was all caused by something that's preventable: impaired driving.

"The kind of injuries that happened to me, you know, disabled for life and in chronic pain are 100 per cent preventable," said the 34-year-old from her home in Nanaimo, B.C., about the night that changed her life forever on Sept. 11, 2013.

The story of her horrific incident and survival comes at a time of year when officials and advocates are worried about people consuming alcohol or drugs as part of holiday celebrations and then operating a vehicle.

While police are out actively trying to catch people driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they also hope the stories of victims will be a powerful tool in prevention.

"We see entire families destroyed by this, and it's not just the family that's in the collision. It's the extended family beyond that. It's people who've lost family members," said Chief Supt. Holly Turton, the RCMP officer in charge of the force's highway patrol.

Submitted by Molly Burton
Submitted by Molly Burton

Impairment from alcohol or drugs is the third-leading cause of crashes in the province, behind distraction and speed. On average, 64 people die each year from crashes where impairment is a contributing factor. Many more are injured.

Burton was living with her parents in Comox when she was struck by a 16-year-old local teen who was impaired and driving on a learner's license.

It happened when Burton was 24 and walking home along Comox Road's paved shoulder.

 

Burton said she heard a speeding vehicle coming toward her but couldn't get out of its path as it swerved and struck her.

She ended up in a tangle of blackberry bushes in a ditch while the driver left the scene without calling 911.

For hours Burton lay in the cold, wet mud, screaming out for help before a bystander was able to locate her and call for assistance.

She said the only thing that kept her from bleeding to death from one of her legs, which was shattered, was that she landed in a position where her leg was above her heart.

"It features heavily in my nightmares," she said. "It was so dark, and it was so cold."

At 4 a.m. Burton's parents Leslie Wells, 62, and Ralph Burton, 63, got the call that is every parent's worst nightmare: it was RCMP explaining what had happened.

The couple was already awake as they were to fly to the U.S. for a vacation that morning. Instead, they rushed to their daughter and were told she might not survive.

"It's terrifying because … nobody would commit to Molly living," said Ralph Burton. "Her injuries were described as catastrophic, and everybody was just saying, 'We're going to do everything that we can, but we can't make any guarantees.'"

Long list of injuries

Burton did survive, and when asked about all her injuries, it takes minutes for her to chronicle them.

They include losing 10 centimetres of her shin bone, multiple compound fractures, a broken shoulder, broken teeth, nerve damage and a brain injury. Photos from the hospital show the redhead looking grim-faced.

"There's metal just everywhere," she said about her body. "Just everywhere."

Submitted by Leslie Wells
Submitted by Leslie Wells

Burton said she has undergone 11 surgeries and only within the last three years has she been able to stop using a wheelchair.

"I just live life in pain … the price I pay to be alive today … and it's most of the time worth it."

Perhaps the hardest part of her ordeal was the deep depression she sank into once most of her ongoing medical appointments had ceased. She still faced debilitating chronic pain and had little to do in life as her brain injury even kept her from reading, something she did voraciously before the incident.

"It was almost like losing my sense of self and my identity. Every dream I had for my future, every goal I had, every plan I had, even how I conceptualized my sense of myself was all taken from me," she said.

Submitted by Molly Burton
Submitted by Molly Burton

Burton started drinking to cope and soon spiralled out of control. She landed back in hospital twice due to her addiction and depression.

"We almost lost her twice," said her mother.

Burton said during her second time in hospital, due to her alcohol consumption, she somehow found the inner strength and clarity to realize she needed to change.

"I just got sick and tired of being sick and tired. I was like, 'I don't want to die, and I'm going to kill myself if I keep doing this. I need to turn my life around.'"

Submitted by Leslie Wells
Submitted by Leslie Wells

As she succeeded in overcoming her addiction and coped with her pain and anguish from the accident, she began volunteering in her community, working with other people struggling with the same things.

"She decided that she wanted to live and started making decisions with that perspective, and of course, we supported her the best that we could," said father Ralph Burton. "I couldn't be more proud of her today at what she's doing with her life. She's a gift to that community."

Burton and her parents said the teen that struck her was eventually sentenced to six months house arrest for the incident.

'I'm strong enough to survive'

The family said the ordeal has been a struggle, and anger has played a part. However, they choose more often to focus on acceptance than negativity toward the impaired driver.

"Yes, this awful, horrible thing happened for me. Yes, it's a struggle daily, but maybe it happened to me because I'm strong enough to survive," said Molly Burton.

"Maybe it happened to me because I'm capable of using that story to educate others on the dangers of drinking and driving or help other people move through chronic pain and addiction."