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.”