An 11-year-old Saltillo boy and the foundation created to honor his late father were front and center in Birmingham on Tuesday night.
During the University of Alabama-Birmingham versus Samford baseball game, Bryson Burks and the Kidney Head Foundation were featured in a video created by UAB’s media department. As part of an enduring friendship between Bryson, when he was a patient at Children’s Hospital of Alabama, and his dad Brett Burks, when he was a kidney transplant recipient at UAB Hospital, the Blazers have thrown their support behind the new foundation that aims to help children going through dialysis.
“He truly cares about others more than himself,” said Blazers catcher Holt Davis in the video. “I think he knows what he’s been through is a way to reach others.”
The Saltillo Elementary School fifth-grader, mom Chris Burks and 50 friends from Northeast Mississippi boarded a bus to Birmingham on Tuesday afternoon. Among the friends was Jantzen Woodard, one of Bryson’s Saltillo Elementary classmates, who was moved to collect more than $100 in donations in support of Kidney Head.
“I thought it was a great thing he was doing, and I wanted to help,” Woodard said.
Rain ended the game early, but Bryson threw out the first pitch and fans were able to see the video, and the group had a great time, said Chris Burks.
"It was a whirlwind," Burks said.
In fall 2012, Brett Burks developed kidney failure and began dialysis. It soon became clear he would need a kidney transplant. In October 2013, Bryson began having seizures that were linked to conversion disorder, a rare condition where psychological stress manifest physically.
UAB and Children’s Hospital of Alabama coordinated resources so that the Burkses could stay together as dad Brett recovered from the aftermath of the kidney transplant and Bryson received intensive treatment for conversion disorder in January 2014. The Burks family lived in Birmingham for months.
One weekend, baseball-loving Bryson and his mom ended up at a Blazers game. Within moments of sitting down, Bryson caught a fly ball. Not only did the Blazers sign the ball, but Coach Brian Shoop also invited Bryson into the dugout after the game.
“They were so nice to us,” Chris Burks remembered.
The Burks family became regulars at the Blazer games, and friendships deepened. The family participated in the Strike Out Cancer event and its opening banquet.
As spring turned into summer, Brett Burks’ new kidney began to fail, and his health care team discovered he had a rare blood disorder. He died July 7.
Out of the devastating grief, Bryson looked for ways to honor his dad.
“We thought dialysis was so hard on my dad, it must be twice as hard on a kid,” Bryson said.
The name Kidney Head and the logo are a nod to Brett Burks’ favorite band, the Grateful Dead. The Mabus Agency donated its professional services to design the logo and the kidneyhead.org website.
Kidney Head was officially formed as a special project of the CREATE Foundation in December. Kidney Head helped two children on dialysis at Christmas. The goal is to help all of the children being treated at Children’s of Alabama Renal Care Department this year and expand to Mississippi and Tennessee in 2016.
“In five years, we hope to help all the children on dialysis in the U.S.,” Chris Burks said.
Putting together a foundation and speaking publicly would be a challenge for anyone, but is especially impressive considering that Bryson done it all while continuing to manage anxiety with his conversion disorder and the tics of Tourette's syndrome, which he has battled since he was five.
"He's incredible," said Children's of Alabama Tourette Syndrome center coordinator Jan Rowe, who works with Bryson. "There are very few young men like him… he's really come so far."