Cornelius kindergartner overcomes
Balian Funderburk, 6, was never supposed to walk again.
His parents were told on four separate occasions that his surgical operations — required because of health complications from spina bifida and hydrocephalus he’s had since birth — would likely paralyze him for the rest of his life.
His most recent operations were in January of this year, but you wouldn’t know it by watching Balian hop and run around Anna & Abby’s Yard in Forest Grove, a park designed with physical and cognitive disabilities in mind.
“It’s opened our eyes to places like these that are inclusive,” said Hannah Funderburk, Balian’s mom. “This table has space for a wheelchair to pull up to it. The swings are inclusive (and) everywhere you look, any kind of mobility can come through.”
Balian Funderburk’s condition was discovered while he was still in his mother’s womb, during an ultrasound at 20 weeks.
He had his first spinal surgery when he was just 24 hours old. At a month old, he had brain surgery to install a shunt to help with the buildup of cerebral fluid caused by hydrocephalus.
Unfortunately, those surgeries were just the first chapter of Funderburk’s health complications.
That brain shunt had to be replaced in February 2022 because it stopped working.
Then, he had another spinal surgery in May 2022, after doctors discovered another tumor.
Just a few months later, in September 2022, an MRI scan revealed that the tumor had come back.
Two more surgeries in January 2023 fully removed it, but again the Funderburks were told that Balian would likely not be able to walk and run. The neurosurgeon said there was a 99% chance the procedure would paralyze him.
“She pulled us aside and said, basically, ‘You need to choose his life or his legs,’” Hannah Funderburk said. “We chose his life.”
Again, Balian Funderburk surprised everyone and beat the odds. Following two exhausting surgeries at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s hospital — the first was nine hours and the second was over eight — Balian came out “toes kicking” both times.
Then came the therapy to relearn how to walk, how to zip his pants, how to hold a pencil.
Hannah Funderburk praised both the medical team and Balian’s educators at Free Orchards Elementary School in Cornelius.
“That team has been so great,” Hannah Funderburk said. “Really advocating for him and getting him what he needs. Balian misses a lot of school, but he’s a pretty good student.”
His teacher even visited him while he was recovering from his most recent operations, with a big banner and letters signed by all his classmates.
Balian Funderburk also got some support from his “stuffie,” Kitty, a stuffed cheetah that he says is his favorite animal. His hospital bed was also surrounded by Pokémon, some of his favorite characters.
He also agreed to be an advocate for Child Life Therapy, a program that helps children cope with hospitalization and illness.
“He agreed to allow them to tell his story,” Hannah Funderburk said. “To bring more awareness and more funding. We love how much he takes the positives out of the negative situation… he’s gone through so much and he’s still so happy.”
Not that it’s been easy, she added.
Balian Funderburk has medical trauma from going through all this so young, and he has difficulty talking about the negative aspects of his lifelong disabilities. That’s why he has counselors and life therapists who help him work through these issues.
But Hannah Funderburk said her son’s resiliency and determination is an inspiration to her and her husband.
“He’s a real-life superhero,” she said. “(Balian’s) superhero is his dad, but my husband would say that his superhero is him.”
Balian Funderburk went back to school Feb. 14, 2023 — two and a half weeks after his latest spine surgery.
He walked into his kindergarten classroom on his own two legs.