Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in The Red and Black (April, 2017), an independent student-run daily paper of the University of Georgia-Athens. With permission from the organization, the author (Michael Hebert), and the Burton family, we are republishing the article in its entirety.
When it came to the birth of their second child, Jay and Lezlie Burton didn’t know what to expect.
They didn’t know their newborn daughter, Kendall Burton, would spend the next five days in the ICU at a local Houston hospital. They didn’t know she would be born with a cleft palate, one that would require surgery when she was only three months old. They didn’t know she would need jaw realignment, a nose reboot, and 21 other surgeries throughout her adolescent years. They didn’t know Burton would experience a stroke her freshman year at the University of Texas San-Antonio.
But what they did know, however, reassured them that their daughter was going to be just fine.
“From early on she truly was a little firecracker,” Burton’s mother said. “So, we kind of followed her lead.”
At an early age given her medical circumstances, Burton was given a choice. She could either become very introverted or closed in, or challenge the adversity head on.
Given the fact her surgeries made her look different, it was easy to conform and take the former rather than the latter.
But Burton didn’t care what people thought.
“Kendall takes adversity in a different way than most people you meet everyday,” Burton’s mother said.
Burton knew with each surgery, each medical scare and each hospital visit, her dream of playing college softball was still there.
“I didn’t want to go back and feel sorry for myself,” Burton said. “I had to fight, I had to do something.”
‘You’ve got to do what you got to do’
It wasn’t always easy for the Burtons when Kendall was first brought into the world.
Having to deal with alternative forms of obtaining food, a newly born Kendall tore through her feeding tubes, and was quick to show her displeasure of the early procedures she had to endure.
“That’s a real struggle for a kid [of that age],” Kendall’s older sister Laine Dornbos said. “[Despite that], she was still a happy baby.”
While Burton didn’t know the extent of her first several surgeries, her parents have a clear memory of it.
The Burtons were faced with the task of caring for a child with severe medical conditions.
“When I think about it, sometimes I don’t even know how they did it,” Burton said. “They’re like my heroes.”
Sure, Burton was able to deal with a lot of her setbacks through her own personality, but the will to keep powering through every obstacle came from her parents.
Their idea was to be proactive, making sure their daughter would get the right medical attention early on so she could avoid any issues later on in life.
The surgeries helped with that, but as she got older, multiple trips to her surgeon caused her to look different. Each day as she got on the bus, kids didn’t hesitate to give her a hard time.
“Kids can be so mean,” Burton’s father said. “We told her ‘you don’t take anything from anybody, you stand up to these people’ and she’s had to do that.”
Burton has been able to overcome bullies at school by simply not allowing it to bother her. There were times, however, when Kendall became sad and disappointed. Those were the times when she leaned on her parents the most.
Her parents reassured her those kids have no idea what it’s like to walk even a couple hours in her shoes, and their opinions didn’t matter in the slightest.
“We didn’t ever feel sorry for ourselves or for her, but we knew this was something that we’re just going to have to deal with,” Jay said. “At the end of the day, you figure it out, you just have got to do what you’ve got to do to take care of your child.”
Softball and surgeries
When Ridge Point High School softball head coach James McClanahan met Kendall Burton during her freshman year at the school, he knew little of her multiple surgeries, and was unaware she was undergoing her most intense procedures during that time.
“The first thing that caught my attention is that she was very outgoing, extremely friendly, and just had a wonderful personality,” McClanahan said. “To know what she’s endured and she still has that sweet, outgoing, bubbly persona, I knew right then she was going to be a winner.”
However, Burton did not have an easy road during her four years at Ridge Point.
She underwent a bone marrow transplant, where the surgeon took bone marrow from her hip and applied to her face. The marrow never took properly, and she had to have her jaw broken and realigned.
The amount of surgeries began to frustrate Burton, and she decided to take a stand.
During a brief visit with her surgeon, the plan was to have a couple more surgeries periodically to ensure that everything would be put in place.
However, Burton didn’t want that.
“I told the doctor, ‘No, we’re going to do it all in one’,” Burton said. “At that point, I just told him ‘I’m done, I don’t want this to define me anymore, I don’t want to deal with surgery after surgery every other year’.”
Everyone in the room during that visit looked at her like she was crazy. Her mom, worried, tried to talk her out of it, but Burton wouldn’t budge. She went through the surgery, braced the pain, and continued on with what she knew best.
“Throughout high school, softball was my go-to, my outlet, and it always has been,” Burton said.
The same intensity Burton applied to her medical battle bled over onto the softball field.
“When you stand on the outside and you think of any kid that’s had to go through all those surgeries which most people would consider tragic, I can’t imagine not being bitter.” McClanahan said. “But Kendall? She’s 180 degrees the opposite way.”
A search for a normal life
One late evening during the fall of her freshman year at the University of Texas San Antonio, Kendall Burton was arriving back to her dorm room. Her grandfather had just passed away and she was returning from his funeral.
Burton was grieving.
That grief quickly turned to shock as Burton began having a stroke while in her dorm room.
“You don’t hear about young people having strokes very often,” Burton’s mother said. “It was really scary.”
Burton’s parents became extremely worried. They asked her to come home and live in Houston for the rest of the semester, to which Burton refused.
Burton wanted a normal life, something she felt she didn’t have growing up. She wanted to do her therapy in San Antonio, come back and play softball, and move on.
The road to recovery was a long and arduous journey.
While she had her mom, dad and older sister to lean on for emotional support, she decided to take a different route when it came to her friends on the softball team.
“I like to make jokes about everything,” Burton said. “I almost made it like a joke when I couldn’t say things right after the stroke.”
That joke became a running one between her and the team. Every time she would say something wrong, her friends didn’t become worried, but rather laughed when she would respond with the phrase “Ahh, that was strokish!”
Even the coaches became involved, everyone on the team stepped up and handled it that way because it was what Burton wanted.
“They fed off of me, and I fed off of them and I’ll never forget that,” Burton said. “For me to make it humorous, and for them to have the feedback, it made me feel less alone.”
Jokes aside, Burton was able to battle back the following semester and play for UTSA during the spring.
Not only did she play, but she played exceptionally well, hitting .363 with 43 runs on her way to Second-Team All-Conference USA and Conference USA Comeback Player of the Year.
“I remember wondering if she was putting on a strong face for us,” Dornbos said. “But I don’t think she was, I think she was really just the kind of person that can just deal.”
Just keep playing
Kendall Burton went on to play her sophomore season at UTSA before transferring to Oklahoma State University. There, she wasn’t medically cleared to play because of her medical history, which frustrated her.
She wanted a challenge, she wanted an opportunity to play on the national stage with some of the best competition in the country, and she felt like she wasn’t getting the opportunity.
This led her to a conversation with her sister that changed the course of her career.
Laine Dornbos and Burton were talking, as they often do on a daily basis.
Dornbos was tired of seeing her sister struggle, she wanted her to live a normal life, and stop battling.
But for Burton, battling was a part of her life, normal or not.
“It just broke my heart because she’s my baby sister,” Dornbos said. “Anything that happened was really hard for me. Part of me wanted her to come home, be with friends and family.”
Burton gave the idea some thought. After much deliberation, Burton called her sister back to let her know she wasn’t going to come home. She felt like she didn’t want to give everything up because of one setback.
“It’s not one little thing, it was a pile of so much,” Dornbos said. “But for Kendall, its just like ‘Nah man nothing is going to stop me. I don’t care what hits me in the face, I’m going to keep playing ball.’”
And she did.
Burton kept playing ball when she opened the season for Georgia softball after transferring in the fall of 2016. She started in the outfield and found a spot in the Bulldogs’ lineup.
She kept playing ball when she suffered a post-stroke seizure during Georgia’s trip to California this season, to which afterwards she was put on anti-seizure medication.
And she will keep playing ball now that her medical struggles are behind her.
“I guarantee she is going to do some special things as an adult,” Burton’s father said. “No is not in her vocabulary and she knows she can overcome anything.”