On the morning of Aug. 17, 2006, 12-year-old Devin Maurer of Patton was a normal kid, a bit big for his age, who liked football and swimming. By that evening, everything had changed.
After a day at the Patton Park pool, Devin was riding his bike home for dinner when he clipped an oncoming car. He flew off his bike and struck the car head first. He was quickly taken by medical helicopter to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, where he was in a drug-induced coma for nearly two days to treat his traumatic brain injury (TBI).
A week later, Devin came home. After recovery and a few months of homeschooling, he started sixth grade at Cambria Heights Middle School and appeared to be largely recovered.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Devin Maurer’s parents, Edgar Maurer of Carrolltown and Nissy Haluska of Patton show some of his things. Devin suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was 12. He ended his life when he was 15.
His family, however, soon learned that his physical recovery masked problems of a different sort.
"When Devin started back to school after his head injury, and in the years to follow, because you didn't see an injury, people didn't think there was an injury," says Devin's mother, Nissy Haluska. "For those years that he went back to school, there were a lot of things that just didn't come back to him. And I was OK with that, because he was here and I thought everything else would come back over time.
"We knew he wasn't 100 percent Devin. But you learned to live with it."
The facts on TBI
Statistics and facts on traumatic brain injury, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
* An estimated 1.7 million Americans sustain a TBI annually; 52,000 die; 275,000 are hospitalized; and 1.365 million are treated and released from the ER.
* TBI is a contributing factor in nearly a third of all injury-related deaths in the U.S. each year.
* Those most likely to sustain a TBI are children ages 0-4, adolescents ages 15-19 and adults ages 65 and older.
* Nearly half a million ER visits for TBIs are made annually by children ages 0-14.
* In every age group, TBI rates are higher for males than females.
* Falls are the leading cause of TBIs, while motor vehicle/traffic injuries are the leading cause of TBI-related deaths
* An estimated 5.3 million Americans currently have long-term or life-long needs for help to perform daily activities as a result of a TBI
* About 40 percent of those hospitalized with a TBI had at least one lasting problem a year after their injury.
After his accident, Nissy says, Devin seemed to lose the ability to "filter" himself. He'd say outlandish, inappropriate things. He had frequent, severe headaches. He lost touch with reality in some ways.
"He didn't have any sense of timing after his accident," Nissy says. "He would tell me a story that happened three weeks ago and he would tell it like it just happened."
His new behavior didn't register at school, she said. Since Devin had just begun middle school and was dealing with all new teachers, there was no one who knew "the old Devin." And the change of schools helped mask some of Devin's behavioral changes.
"Behavior-wise, we noticed some differences," says Tish Cordell, Devin's aunt and Nissy's sister. "But do you put that on a kid getting acclimated to junior high or do you blame that on the injury?"
Devin had problems with normal teenage angst and was upset that he was forbidden to play football because of his TBI, but he didn't seem especially depressed. Still, his family - including Nissy, father Edgar Maurer and step-father Daryl Haluska, as well as Devin's three younger siblings - had to admit that something was wrong.
"He just wasn't the same person," Tish says. "You could never tell he had an injury, but you knew he didn't act like the person he used to be."
Devin stayed busy, joining the Cambria Heights High School swim team during his freshman year, serving as a junior fireman with Patton Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 and working on several local farms. But none of them seemed ease his mind completely.
On the night of July 7, 2010, Nissy spoke to Devin several times in his room. He repeatedly teased her that he needed a ride to work at 7 a.m., so she couldn't sleep in. She pretended to whine about the early wake-up call.
Not long after Nissy last checked on him, at about 1 a.m., she noticed his door was still open and asked Daryl to send him to bed. But Devin wasn't in his room.
He had gone outside, tied the rope from his firefighter's gear around a swing set and hung himself.
Devin Maurer was 15 years old.
"I'm never going to know what exactly was going through his mind, but as close as we can figure, he didn't go out there that night [to kill himself]," Nissy says, struggling to keep her composure.
"At that moment in time, he just wanted everything to stop. And he didn't know how to make it stop."
* * *
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 1.7 million people in the United States suffer traumatic brain injuries each year from bumps, falls or more severe head injuries.
Nearly half a million of those TBIs are suffered by children ages 0 to 14. The Brain Injury Association of Pennsylvania says nearly 26,000 Pennsylvania children suffer TBIs each year.
But treating the physical injury itself is just the beginning for many TBI patients. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study estimates that more than 5 million Americans need long-term or full-time daily living assistance as a result of a TBI. Another CDC study said that about 40 percent of those hospitalized with a TBI had difficulties one year after injury that included: problems with memory loss or problem solving; difficulties managing stress and emotional upset; an inability to control their temper; and difficulties improving job skills.
"Sometimes families will think that the hard part is the ICU," says Dr. Hugh D. Newman, D.O., a physiatrist in Altoona. "I tell them that, once they find that their family member is going to live, that's the easy part.
"But then, out of the hospital, it's the normal, everyday things that'll hit you in the face."
Newman specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Altoona Regional Health System and HealthSouth. He says TBI's lasting effects are one of the trickier things for people to understand.
"You lose a finger or a limb or have any disfigurement and everyone is very aware of what you've been through, but with a brain injury [you can't see it]," he says. "In a large way, it is a change in the person.
"You could have a spinal injury, but you're still the same person. You find a new way to get from point A to point B, but you're still the same person. But if you have a brain injury, it can take away a large percentage of the person you were. The ripple effect of that can be so profound that many people have a hard time in dealing with it."
Such a drastic change in brain chemistry can be even more severe with children and adolescents, Newman explains.
"With younger people you have someone who's already in the conflict between parents and a kid," he says, a conflict made more difficult by the effects of TBI.
Such misleading situations can affect how families treat their loved ones, Newman says.
"I see families not accepting that there's something different," he says. "It's all that you can't see, where you can't quantify or qualify what's wrong.
"It's the subtleties that end up being the ripple that could be the cause of something catastrophic."
* * *
In Devin's case, his family was painfully aware of the changes in his personality. They just didn't know what they could do about it, or how serious it could become.
"I went to our family doctor and said, 'How did I miss something so significant?'" Nissy says. "And he said, 'You didn't. They're just learning about [TBI.]'"
Such conversations led her to research TBIs on her own.
"The more I looked into his head injury, and the more I tried to follow it, I would get lost," she says now. "All I would ever get was, 'the brain is a very complicated thing and nothing is ever too strange [to believe].'
"Had I realized when Devin had his accident in 2006, about the link between suicide and TBI ... who knows?"
According to Tish Cordell, the family found out after his death that Devin had told some of his friends that he considered suicide - but they didn't take it seriously because he said it in a joking way.
"But he never told an adult," she says, sadly.
Nissy says such warnings in retrospect began to take their toll on those Devin left behind.
"I guess as time went on, I realized that some of his friends were still struggling with [his death] and they, at different times, had a lot of questions," she says. "Because they felt that they had failed him. ... I knew that I needed to work toward something positive if I was ever going to get through this."
One of the first things Nissy did to raise awareness for TBI's link to depression and suicide was share her story with the Brain Injury Association of Pennsylvania. A friend who worked for the agency first approached her about the idea.
"She made the comment to me, 'Nissy, would you mind sharing Devin's story?'" she says. "I would always tell Devin's story if somebody asked, but I never got the importance of telling his story until a year later.
"And you almost think that, if somebody had reached out and said something to me [before Devin's death], I would've known what to look for."
Devin's family also organized the DJM Memorial Corn Hole Tournament and Picnic which was held on July 9. The event, which is planned as an annual tournament, drew more than 300 people and raised awareness of TBI and funds for two programs - the BIAPA and the Wounded Warriors Project.
"As the anniversary was coming up, we made up our minds that it wasn't going to be a sad thing," Tish says. "It wasn't necessarily a fundraiser, but a positive to help others."
* * *
A sad footnote to Devin's story is that help was on its way. It just didn't get there soon enough.
In September 2007, the BIAPA began the BrainSTEPS program, a federally funded program whose aim is to create educational plans for students to ease back into school after an acquired brain injury. The program teaches educators, parents and students how to help someone with a TBI reacclimate to their normal life and deal with whatever lasting effects their injury puts them through.
"We are based out of the educational Intermediate Units and we have educators, medical providers, rehab providers, therapists and family members on all of our teams," says Brenda Eagan Brown, BrainSTEPS program coordinator. "It encompasses a whole community approach."
The BrainSTEPS program works through a referral system, wherein a parent or teacher refers a student with a brain injury to the local unit and then the "team" takes over. The group takes any child who has experienced a brain injury after birth, no matter the cause.
"Once a referral is made, the team convenes and they get the medical records, the rehab records, the education records," Eagan Brown says. "They train the school district on any needs that student may have."
The group also contacts the friends of the child and teaches them about what sort of changes their friends may have.
"[After a TBI], they could come back a different kid, but they still remember who they used to be," she says. "We train their friends so their peers understand what happened to them."
The program doesn't just take care of the children during their reintegration into school, either.
"We not only assist students when they really need us educationally, but once they're in our database, we check in annually [to see if there are any problems]," Eagan Brown says. "We're being proactive and saying, 'Hey, we're still here, we're free, we're ready to come out and help.'"
According to Eagan Brown, the local Intermediate Unit No. 8 - serving Blair, Bedford, Cambria and Somerset counties - was trained in the spring of 2008 and began working with area school districts in the 2008-2009 school year.
Just a few short years after Devin Maurer returned to school following his accident.
* * *
Nissy Haluska doesn't want her son's death to lose meaning as the years go by. Nor does she want him to be forgotten because of how his life ended.
"I was proud of who Devin had become in 15 years," she says. "I don't want other kids, or even adults, to feel like they're being overwhelmed. ... What he did was a bad choice, but who he was, he shouldn't be forgotten.
"Because it was a suicide, people don't want to look at the big picture."
And Nissy believes that Devin would be firmly behind sharing his "big picture" with others.
"Being the type of person that Devin was, he would be so for all of this - telling his story," she says proudly.
And by telling his story, Nissy and her family hope that the message that missed them will hit home in time to help another child, another family.
"If there's one person out there in this world that gets something from his story, then somebody's been saved, you know?" she says.
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.