SEOUL, South Korea — It's been a long journey home for Sean Jones.
Jones moved from Oklahoma City to teach English in South Korea, where he was diagnosed in the spring with a rare type of encephalitis. After months of medical treatment he finally made it to St. John's Hospital in Tulsa on Sept. 9 and hoped to leave the hospital this weekend, said his mother, LaTanya Dodd.
Jones, 29, has anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a brain disease that can be confused with psychological disorders, and wasn't allowed to leave the hospital in South Korea until his bill was paid in full. He and his brother paid the hospital $10,000 soon after he was admitted, but as his illness lingered the bill climbed to $47,000.
Most yearlong teaching contracts in South Korea offer medical care based on the country's national health insurance with the employee sharing the cost. But when Jones became too sick to teach, the school had to terminate his contract, Dodd said.
Much of the money to pay his hospital bill came from donations via fundraisers on Facebook and GiveForward.com set up by his family. Dodd said one person came up to her on the street and handed her 200,000 South Korean won (about $184).
“It restored my belief in humanity,” Dodd said. “People will help.”
Others sponsored fundraising events such as raffles, soccer tournaments, parties and quiz nights.
Kholo Matsafu said she became friends with Jones after they met as teachers in Cheonan during his first year on the Korean Peninsula.
After they moved to different towns she lost touch until hearing about his illness.
Within a few days, Matsafu and Melissa Hanson pulled together a performing group, including people who belly-danced, sang, and performed stand-up comedy and storytelling.
It included B-boying, also known as break dancing, which Jones loved to do before he got sick, she said.
“People just gave. It was incredible,” Matsafu said.
In one night at a bar in Seoul, people donated more than 1,200,000 won (about $1,170), and the money was given to Dodd the next day.
Jones' name and his family's efforts to get him home became well known in the South Korean expatriate community.
Road to recovery
Dodd and Sean's brother, Brandon Jones, spent time taking care of him in the hospital.
In South Korea, “family members are generally expected to provide hospital patients with much of the nonmedical care” such as bathing and feeding, according to the Korea4Expats website that provides information on work, life and leisure for those living in the country.
Brandon Jones arrived in May and stayed until Dodd could take over in July. She spent two months living in the hospital and tending to her son.
By early September, Dodd said, her son was physically improving despite some obstacles.
He still had bed sores and was trying to get his appetite back since he dropped more than half of his body weight in a matter of months.
Shortly before he left South Korea, Matsafu said, she could see improvement in his condition.
“He looked like he was on the way to recovery, slowly. It was cool to see that he still had his personality, and that was one of the greatest things to discover. Such a joyful and giving person, 100 percent oozing life.”
Now, with the family back in Oklahoma, Sean Jones has a long, yet hopeful, road ahead of him. Once he gets home, a nurse will visit daily to administer medication and change his bandages. He will also continue to visit the neurologist.
Dodd said the Korean doctors estimated a one-to-two year recovery, but she hasn't spoken with the Oklahoma doctors about a time frame. She said it's great to be back in Oklahoma.
“Within a few days, it was a world of difference,” Dodd said. “It's such a relief to be home. It took everybody to get us home.”
Laura-Claire Corson is an English teacher and freelance journalist who has been in South Korea for four years.