What do you do when your engaging, creative 21-year-old son dies of a hidden ailment while away at college?
If you are Susan Dean, you pick up the pieces of your broken heart and focus on a way of preserving his memory – for him and for others.
“We take it one day at a time,” she said.
Thomas Dean, known as “Thom” as a nod to his unique perspective on life, showed no signs of illness but died Nov. 2 in his senior year at Fredonia State College of “lymphocytic myocarditis.” It was likely caused by a virus that attacked his heart, his mother said, which led to his sudden and unexpected death.
“He showed absolutely no symptoms,” said Dean, a medical transcriptionist.
Dean and her daughter, Katherine “Katie” Dean, 19, and nephew, Matthew Ward, have compiled memories of Thom from family members and friends, along with a selection of Thom’s writings in a book titled “Immortal: The Life and Legacy of Thomas Dean.”
Proceeds from the book will go to the Thomas Dean Memorial Fund, which the family has established at Fredonia State.
Susan, Katie and Susan’s best friend, Jean Murphy, who was also Thom’s godmother, attended what should have been Thom’s graduation ceremony May 17 at Fredonia.
“My daughter went up on stage and accepted Thom’s diploma,” Dean recalled. “You see hundreds of kids there and wondered how this could have happened to us. But they did a nice job. I’m glad my best friend was there from Colorado. I don’t think I could have done it without her.”
As it was, Murphy, who has been Susan Dean’s closest friend for more than 30 years, visited the Deans last October to celebrate her godson’s 21st birthday. Dean said it was fate that Murphy was able to visit at that time, as it is sometimes several years between visits.
“Thom’s birthday was Oct. 25, and a week later, on Nov. 1, Katie, Jean and I went to Fredonia and took Thom out to dinner,” Dean said.
Dean returned to her Niagara Falls home following dinner in Fredonia. She received the call at 4 the next morning that Thom had died. It took four long months for the autopsy results to show that it was lymphocytic myocarditis, a very rare condition, she noted, about which little is known.
Dean is thankful that she was able to see her son the day before he died. She also is grateful that her daughter and best friend were with her when she received the tragic news.
“This is an amazing story on so many levels,” she said.
And in reviewing Thom’s life, his poems and compositions, Dean recalled that her son had always seemed like “an old soul.”
“Thom always called himself an old man,” she said. “I think part of him knew. He knew in his soul … He was a unique young man, a very strong personality. He never went along with the other kids. He didn’t care, he was just going to be himself, and I think his friends looked up to him for that.”
Thom was an English major, with a minor in creative writing.
Dean called her son’s writing, “very prophetic, very deep, as if he knew something the rest of us didn’t. It seems he knew he wouldn’t live a long life.”
One of Thom’s poems, written while still a student at Newfane High School, provided the theme for the book.
Titled, “Immortal,” it reads:
Stop the world, or let it spin.
It is of no difference to me.
For I am not of the earth, nor the wind, nor the sky.
I am of the soul.
Dean said compiling the book gave her a chance to do something positive in her grief.
“It gave me something to focus on,” she said. “Thom left us these words. This was his gift.”
Her family’s hope is for Thom’s story “to inspire others to live life to the fullest and realize it’s a precious gift that can be gone in an instant,” according to the book.
Dean also hopes it helps to raise awareness of a condition that she had never heard of until it touched her life.
“My daughter and I are going to New Jersey next month for the second annual Myocarditis Foundation family support meeting,” she said. “It’s very rare, but I think maybe myocarditis actually happens much more often. I think sometimes autopsies are (labeled) inconclusive if they aren’t looking for this. There is more awareness now of this being a cause of sudden death in young people. And some people survive – I’d say it’s about 50/50, but many often need heart transplants.”
Dean said she plans to hold a book-signing later this summer at the Hip Gypsy shop in North Tonawanda and is seeking to arrange other book-signings and outlets to sell the book.
In the meantime, the book is available on Amazon and by contacting her directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Thom wasn’t a typical 21-year-old,” his mother fondly recalled. “He was himself all of the way.”