NEW CASTLE —
Everything about Derrick Burns screams football player.
The broad shoulders, muscular legs — even the football he constantly carries around with him — make it obvious that the young man with the easy smile has got game.
Four months ago, in fact, the 20-year-old redshirt sophomore on the University of Pittsburgh football team had the world by the proverbial tail as he prepared for 2012 and a possible starting berth for the Panthers.
Then Derrick got the headache that turned his world upside down.
THE START OF IT ALL
It was May 13, and the son of Dan and Cindy Burns of New Wilmington reported to Pitt for summer workouts, flying high after a good spring practice. Following two days of strenuous workouts, the headache started.
“The weird thing was, I was running, lifting and working out and wasn’t sweating,” Derrick said. “Everybody around me was sweating like crazy and I had nothing coming out of me at all. In all the years I’ve been playing sports, that has never happened to me.”
It was, as it turned out, a big red flag.
A day later, Derrick’s headache had gotten so bad that he didn’t go to practice.
Instead, thinking of his good friend and former fellow Wilmington High football star Clint DeRosa, who died in 2010 of a brain aneurysm, he texted his family with the words, “I’m scared.”
At Dan’s and Cindy’s urging, Derrick went to the emergency room at Presbyterian Hospital, where he underwent a CAT scan, followed by a spinal tap and MRI.
On May 18, a neurosurgeon called Cindy with the results.
“He said there was no bleeding and that nothing pointed to anything other than a migraine,” she said. “He couldn’t look at light, we were told he had all the classic signs. Basically we were told not to worry.”
On May 19, Derrick texted his mom to tell her that he was in the worst pain of his life and that the only thing he could do to alleviate it was sleep.
A day later, Derrick attended church, then again slept for hours.
On May 21, Derrick called Cindy at Wilmington Middle School, where she is a secretary, and pleaded with her to come to his apartment and pick him up.
She brought him home, and his sister Julie promised to stay with him while she returned to work. Shortly after she arrived, Julie called to say Derrick’s right side was going numb. Cindy took him to their family physician, who looked at the results and confirmed the migraine diagnosis.
“He gave Derrick some migraine pills and told me to have him take one, then if that didn’t help, to take another one,” she said. “Those two pills did nothing. At that point, I wasn’t sitting back any longer. I know the tests didn’t show anything, but I know my son and something was wrong,” Cindy said.
By the time Derrick arrived in the family’s car at Horizon Hospital in Farrell, he couldn’t stand.
“They made us wait 45 minutes and Derrick was in so much pain, he went outside and laid on the sidewalk,” she said. “He was writhing in agony. I was pleading with them to do something for him.”
Derrick was given morphine intravenously, which alleviated the pain, but as Cindy learned later, likely just masked the symptoms. At 2 a.m. May 22, he was sent home.
His parents went to work the next morning as he again stayed home with Julie, and shortly after 9:30 a.m., he was on the phone with his academic adviser when his left arm started shaking uncontrollably.
“I heard him scream my name,” said Julie, who was napping on a nearby couch, “and then I heard the thud.”
Derrick had fallen between the family’s living room and kitchen. Julie could see he was paralyzed on his right side and phoned her mother. In the meantime, the adviser, realizing something had happened, phoned Cindy as well.
Dan was at work at Precision Feedscrews in New Castle when a volunteer fireman he works with received a call on his radio that a Dutchman was having a seizure. “Then I heard the address come over the radio and I said, ‘why is a Dutchman having a seizure at my house?’ ” he said.
“That’s when it hit me,” Dan added. “Oh, no, that’s my son.”
Cindy raced to her home, which is located in the middle of Amish country on the outskirts of New Wilmington, just as an ambulance was arriving.
“Derrick and Julie both were on the floor and she was holding his head in her lap and he wasn’t moving,” Cindy said. “I have never been so fearful in my life.”
The 5-foot-11, 235-pound Derrick, in blinding pain, became combative.
“I took one of the ambulance attendants out,” he said apologetically. “I didn’t know what was happening, I only remember parts of it even now.”
A second ambulance crew had to be called out because one of the first ambulance attendants was injured when Derrick’s flailing arms hit him in the face.
“The attendants had to sit on him to keep him down. He kept telling them, ‘OK, I’m calm now,’ and as soon as they got up off of him, he started going crazy again. They gave him a double dose of a sedative to try and calm him down and he was still delirious, so they had to give him another double dose.”
In a strange twist of irony, one of the ambulance attendants in the second crew to arrive was Clint DeRosa’s brother, Luke.
Derrick was rushed back to Horizon, where it was determined he had two massive blood clots in his nasal cavity. He was flown by medical helicopter to Presbyterian.
“We weren’t allowed to go in the helicopter, we had to drive and it was the longest drive of my life,” Cindy said. “The helicopter flew over us while we were driving and we didn’t know if he was dead or alive in there. I prayed like crazy. I have never been so scared or felt so helpless.”
Doctors were preparing Derrick for surgery when the family arrived, but they were told the surgery was risky and that he had only a 50-50 chance of surviving it.
“A neurosurgeon came in and said Derrick had suffered a stroke and that he had a clot the size of a quarter on his brain,” Cindy said. “He said he was concerned that the surgery was too risky and said he felt Derrick’s chances were better if they tried Heparin first to thin the blood.”
It was a decision that probably saved the young man’s life.
Cindy kept vigil by Derrick’s bedside as the night went on and was buoyed by a massive prayer chain that was ongoing in New Wilmington, which included Tina DeRosa, the mother of Clint. Going in and out of consciousness but extremely dehydrated, Derrick kept begging for a drink of water or some ice chips, but he was not permitted to have it.
Test results revealed that the debilitating headaches were caused by severe dehydration. Doctors also learned that Derrick carries the Factor V gene, an inherited blood clotting disorder, along with lupus anticoagulant syndrome, an autoimmune disease, which caused a perfect storm that led to the stroke.
Derrick, who is white, black and Indian, along with his half-brother Chris, 22, and sisters Julie, 19, and Mariah, 18, all were adopted by the Burns family. Youngest brother Daniel, 16, is a biological son. Chris is a member of the University of Massachusetts football team, while Julie and Mariah are students at Slippery Rock University and Daniel is a junior at Wilmington High.
DEALING WITH REALITY
New Pitt football coach Paul Chryst raced to check on his player in the hospital. Derrick, who helped lead the Wilmington football team to the PIAA Class AA championship his junior season, was a big part of Chryst’s plans for 2012 and was competing for the starting fullback position.
“He walked in and Derrick said, ‘Coach, I think I’m done with football,’ ” Dan said. “We all sort of chuckled at how he just blurted that out. Coach Chryst was a total class act, telling him he just needed to get better, and that we could worry about the other stuff later.”
Although his condition remained serious, it was the first time that Derrick had said the words aloud that his playing career might be over.
As Dan, Julie and Daniel accompanied Mariah to the PIAA Track and Field Championships in Shippensburg that weekend, Cindy remained at Derrick’s bedside. And as she said, “I watched a miracle happen.
“On Thursday, two days after the stroke, he was scheduled to begin therapy, but by Friday, they said maybe not. On Saturday, they said he didn’t need therapy at all.”
In fact, four days after his stroke, the clot on Derrick’s brain was gone.
“They kept looking and looking and it just wasn’t there,” Cindy said, her eyes full of tears. “God was watching over him.”
Derrick’s paralysis had disappeared almost overnight and, even though they were told he never would play football again because of the clotting medications he has to take for the rest of his life, the Burns family was celebrating.
A SECOND SCARE
Derrick’s troubles were not over, however. The night he returned home, he went to sleep on the living room couch and Cindy decided to keep an eye on him from another couch across the room.
“I woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning and Derrick was staring into space,” Cindy said. “I asked him what he was looking at and he said nothing, that he was OK, but I knew that he wasn’t.”
Cindy could see that Derrick was having mild tremors and he admitted that his headache had returned. He was rushed back to Horizon, then returned by ambulance to Presbyterian, where he spent the next four days.
His medication, which inadvertently had been changed when he was released, was adjusted, and he was able to return home when his condition stabilized again.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Derrick remains on scholarship at Pitt (a “permanent medical,” which allows for injured players whose careers are over due to injury or other health conditions to remain on scholarship and earn their degree, according to Pitt senior associate athletic director and Neshannock Township native E.J. Borghetti).
He reported to camp as a student coach last month, but left after two weeks and has not returned to the sideline.
“When it came right down to it, I had a hard time handling it,” he said. “I would listen to guys complaining about the heat or how hard they were working and I would think, ‘Man, do you know how lucky you are? I would give anything to be in your shoes.’
“I guess I just wasn’t ready to be that close to it.”
Derrick has returned to classes at Pitt, where he majors in criminal justice.
With the entire Burns family quite involved in their church, New Life Baptist in New Wilmington, Derrick plans on teaching Bible school and serving as an inspirational speaker in the future, in addition to working at a juvenile detention center. He said he might be interested in coaching down the road.
“Just not now while this is all so fresh,” he said.
He bravely says he knows he is lucky to be alive, but admits he yearns to put on a football uniform again, especially since he carries no symptoms of the stroke.
“Football has been my life since I was 7 years old, so this is just been such an adjustment for me,” Derrick said. “It bothers me, sure, but I also know I could have been paralyzed or worse. I have had to accept that God has a plan for me and that plan no longer includes playing football. But maybe this opens the door for something bigger and better.
“I just have to trust,” he added, “that God has chosen to take my life in another direction now.”
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NEW CASTLE —
Everything about Derrick Burns screams football player.
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