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His senior year included a varsity goal, a coma and — finally — prom

Ian Balutis, 18, arrives at Gonzaga College High School prom after starting his senior year in the hospital. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)

“I um,” my son’s text began, “forgot the tickets.”

He was already in the car headed for his senior prom at the National Building Museum when my firstborn realized he’d messed up.

“Don’t worry about it,” his friend said, with a smile that put everyone at ease. “It’ll be okay.”

And it was. Because the friend was a celebrity that night.

“Ian!!!!!!”, one of the deans hollered, as my son’s friend appeared at the entrance Friday night, ticketless.

“Ian!!!” everyone else yelled and ushered the group in. Everyone was expecting him, and no one needed to check his credentials. They were just grateful he’d made it.

Ian Balutis, 18, had a banging start to senior year, scoring his first varsity goal for the Gonzaga College High School water polo team against the U.S. Naval Academy team on Aug. 28.

Two nights earlier, I’d sat with his mom, Tish Tucker, at senior college night. We were terrified, bracing ourselves for college application hell. The boys were elated, on the brink of everything.

Trying to find your people in college when everyone is gone

Two days later, Ian had a headache and fever. His hands and feet were tingling. His mom took him to the emergency room.

He spent the next seven months in hospitals.

“Are you going to the Mass for Ian?” my son’s friends would ask him, as they headed toward the chapel to pray for their friend once the diagnosis came, and everyone — except my son — realized how grave the situation was. When Ian was absent for a few days and didn’t return texts, my son figured he was sick.

No one imagined the gregarious, bright, athletic guy was in an induced coma.

“Docs think Ian had mono (a very common Epstein Barr type virus), and as his immune system fought off the mono, it also went rogue and started attacking nerve membranes in his brain and spinal cord,” Tish wrote, on the Caring Bridge page that would carry Ian’s story. “This [led] to him not being able to move himself, or speak, or breath reliably on his own.”

Ian was at Inova Fairfax, using his eyes to communicate with his mom and breathing through a tube, then at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, the closest bed they could find for his recovery process.

He didn’t do anything wrong, we kept thinking, as we tried to process what happened. This wasn’t a car accident or risky behavior or karma for any of the abhorrent things teen boys do. There’s no lesson or cause or march or petition for his loved ones to sign, no legislation for us to throw our energy into.

It just sucked.

“If you aren’t moving forward, where else are you going?” he said, when I asked how he retains his trademark positivity.

The pandemic helped some get closer to their community

“He’s like a cat,” he once said of my son, who was being surly during a trip we all took to California last year, before this happened. The gang was headed back out after a day of activity. My son was tired and overwhelmed and didn’t want to go. Ian understood. “Sometimes he just needs to be left alone.”

Since the first day the two met at freshman orientation, Ian always included my slightly reclusive boy in any gathering and invited him into his circle. Ian’s that kid who will always sit beside the one eating alone at lunch.

He met this challenge by becoming more fully himself; he’s teaching us along the way.

Ian had a cult following in all the hospitals. The nurses at Inova Fairfax had a huge, emotional going-away parade when he was discharged. The Gonzaga boys gathered outside and sang the Gonzaga song as he was rolled into an ambulance for his transfer.

Throughout the hospital, the staff began talking about the charismatic kid upstairs. Outside, a stranger passing by said: “You’re Ian!”

In Norfolk, he was featured in the hospital magazine after doctors quickly learned he was the best choice to test new equipment, to pair with incoming kids who were devastated by their circumstances, to be an ambassador for a new life he never asked for.

On superhero day at the hospital, he let them stuff his long legs through a child-size Buzz Lightyear costume, and he wheeled around the halls, making the little kids laugh. Even the kid who took five bullets in a mass shooting only he survived unclenched and began to look to his future after doctors paired him with Ian.

“A little better every day, every day a little better,” is what Ian and his mom would say.

His first real meal in three months was nachos. He began breathing on his own, first for two hours, then eight hours, then 12 hours. He caught up in school, applied to college and chose James Madison University. His essay, which he finished over the summer, didn’t mention any of this.

By March, the tube was gone and his neck wound began to heal. He planned to change his major from filmmaking to nursing. His upper body strength returned. His core strengthened. He could shoot hoops. From the chair.

So far, the MRIs have shown little sign of movement below his waist.

“We should go to prom together,” he told my son, back in March. “I want to dance at prom and walk at graduation.”

One of the respiratory therapists working with him heard the boys talking about prom. Her daughter never had her senior prom, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. She had a dress, though.

So the plan for a prom of second chances, of hope, of being better every day, was launched.

The woman, in college now, brought a friend, and they drove up from Norfolk. My son decorated the undercarriage of Ian’s chair with LED light strips and helped shove his feet into purple and black high top sneakers. Ian put everyone at ease with colostomy bag jokes.

We tried to find a limo, but ended up using the accessible van the Gonzaga community had helped the family with as Ian recovered. “Let’s just go with that,” Tucker said.

She wanted to be nearby — but not hover. It would be his first big outing alone and she wanted to be close in case anything went wrong, but not too close to smother her teenage son. I came for moral support and the light beers we nursed for three hours.

We talked about college, what the accessible dorm for Ian will be like and how much the boys are looking forward to being on their own.

Three hours and we didn’t hear a word from them. They were busy having a blast.

She left nothing to chance in the days leading up to that night. The valet was called ahead. The restaurant prepared for the room his chair would take up. She scouted out the right entrance to the prom. He had been through so much. She wanted this night to be just right.

And then we forgot the tickets.

No worries. They knew Ian was coming; moving ahead, ever forward. A little better every day.

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