Mormon missionary's brother shares miracle preceding his death, pays tribute to his life

By Robert Burton

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Aug. 1 2013 2:00 p.m. MDT

Elder Josh Burton served his LDS MIssion in Guatemala.

Courtesy of Robert Burton

Editor's note: In this piece, Robert Burton, the older brother of Elder Josh Burton, who died while serving as a missionary for the LDS Church, reflects on the accident that took Josh's life and shares a glimpse into Josh's personality.

On the morning of Saturday, July 20, 2013, Elder Josh Burton, age 23, of Leavitt, Alberta, Canada, jumped into the back of a pickup truck with three other missionaries and five members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to help a Guatemalan family move the structure of their home to a safer location.

Though the road to the home was sufficiently dangerous that some local medical workers avoided it altogether, as a missionary for the LDS church, Josh had dedicated the last 20 months to serving the people of Guatemala, and he knew this family needed his help.

While ascending a narrow road along a steep hillside, the pickup's driver nudged closer to the edge, trying to make room for an oncoming vehicle. Suddenly, the shoulder gave way and the pickup began to roll, throwing out those in the back until it finally stopped. Though each sustained injuries, all the missionaries could move — all except Josh. Emergency responders transported the unconscious Josh to Cobán and airlifted him to Guatemala City.

Josh's diagnosis was bad: a massive concussion and two severely broken vertebrae. That afternoon, Dr. Asmitia performed emergency surgery, implanting eight pins to stabilize Josh's broken spine. The surgery concluded after midnight. On Sunday morning, President Curtiss of the Guatemala Cobán Mission called my parents, Allan and Heather, informing them that Dr. Asmitia had given Josh a 1 to 3 percent chance of ever walking. If he did recover, it would take up to a year and a half before they could see significant progress. Knowing Josh's passion for life, they were devastated.

"Yet we had hope," my dad said, "that a 1 to 3 percent chance wasn't impossible where the Lord is involved."

After hearing about the accident, both missions in which Josh served — the Guatemala City East Mission and the newly formed Guatemala Cobán Mission — joined family and friends in fasting for him, praying for a miracle.

And the miracle came. After hanging up with the Burtons, President Curtiss joined Dr. Cameron, the LDS Church's regional medical advisor, and others for an initial examination, to see if any motion existed in Josh's legs.

"Josh, lift your legs," Dr. Asmitia said.

Yet under heavy doses of medication, Josh failed to even respond.

This time Dr. Asmitia shouted, "Josh, lift your legs!"

Clenching his fists, Josh exerted all his strength to move his legs. Slowly, he lifted his knees from the bed. Then, he raised his right foot.

The doctors were shocked. Some cried, while others shook hands. Dr. Asmitia's knees gave way, and his assistant had to grab his arm to keep him from falling. One doctor went to the corner and raised his hands in prayer, knowing he had seen God at work.

Dr. Asmitia pointed upward.

"It all came from up there," he said.

In tears, Dr. Cameron called my mom and dad to share the miracle.

"In 38 years of practice, I have seen a lot of miracles," Dr. Cameron said, "but I have never seen something like this before."

My mom immediately booked a flight to Guatemala City to be with her son. After helping her fourth child, Christian, board a plane for the LDS Missionary Training Centre in Provo, Utah, where he was to report that Wednesday, my mom caught her own flight south. By Monday night she was in Dallas, Texas, awaiting a connecting flight to Guatemala City the following day.

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