From the minute someone becomes a parent, their job is to put the needs of their child before anything, to protect them from harm, and above all else, to love them unconditionally.
A state senator from Virginia did all those things to the best of his ability. Yet, he still feels as if he failed his son after his bright future was destroyed when he became a victim of a broken system. Now, he’s doing everything in his power to honor his son and save others from a similar fate.
A Brilliant Boy
For as long as the Virginia man can remember, he was always in awe of his son. From an early age, his son was incredibly intelligent and was reading simple books on his own by the time he was just three years old. When he got older, he learned to play a variety of instruments, including the drums, piano, guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and harmonica.
According to his father, the boy was also a talented linguist. He mastered Spanish, including all the different Latin American dialects, with ease. After that, he went on to study Arabic and Cantonese, which he also picked up quickly.
“In every sense of the word, my son was my hero,” Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds said in a speech at the National Press Club. “And he was the valedictorian of his class. He was handsome and witty, he had it all going for him.”
No One Like Him
“I’m not sure I’ve met anybody like him,” Deeds told The Washington Post. “He was all the things I wanted to be. I’m not smart, not good at anything, not coordinated, can’t sing, no musical-instrument ability, no gift for languages, and he had all that. I don’t have any of the confidence he displayed at every moment.”
A Bright Future
Austin “Gus” Deeds was a brilliant musician and one of the kindest people you could ever meet, according to his friends. He loved and looked up to his father, who was his personal hero. As a student on the dean’s list at the College of William and Mary, he had a bright future ahead of him.
Running for Governor
In the fall of his junior year, Gus decided to take a semester off. During that time off, Gus spent his time campaigning all across Virginia to help his father run for governor. According to Deeds, Gus was still his normal, happy self during that time spent on the road together.
However, Deeds ended up losing to his opponent. Soon after the loss, Deeds and his wife filed for divorce. In the wake of a failed campaign and a failed marriage, the Gus that everyone knew and loved so much started to change.
The Road Trip
Gus told his family and friends that he needed to take a road trip on his own out to the west coast. Gus claimed he felt a calling to see the ocean. Not everyone understood it, but his friends and family thought he just needed to do some soul searching like many young people.
“A Different Gus”
“When he came back … he was a different,” Adam Michaels, a friend who worked with Gus for several summers at Nature Camp, told ABC News. “His personality had changed a lot, he was pretty manic for a while.”
From Valedictorian to Dishwasher
Sadly, Gus’ downward spiral continued. Instead of going back to school, he decided to take another semester off. Gus tried to work but struggled to keep a job. “My brilliant valedictory son was a dishwasher,” Deeds said in a speech.
Around that time, Gus also started experiencing paranoia. “He seemed very sort of scattered, very different. He had strange paranoia,” Tony Walters, Gus’ childhood friend, told ABC News. “He was imagining different schemes against him; suspicions of people around him … it really seemed like he was going through a very difficult time.”
Gus’ parents knew their son wasn’t just going through some kind of phase. So they brought Gus to a doctor to be evaluated. The doctor determined Gus was suffering from a mental illness and diagnosed him with bipolar disorder. Deeds had a hard time processing everything, but above all, he just wanted his son back. After months of paranoia and delusions, Deeds just wanted to get back the son who loved life and was infectiously happy.
Back on Track
After his diagnosis, Gus began treatment and was put on medication for the disorder. For a while, the treatment and medication seemed to help. Gus went back to school and then returned to work as a camp counselor. He seemed to be getting his life back on track, but stopped taking his medicine in the spring of 2013. That’s when things got a lot worse.
A Cry for Help
During his senior year, Gus ended up dropping out of school yet again and moved back home. On November 18, 2013, Gus seemed worse than ever and Deeds was terrified that he would hurt himself. So Deeds got a court order and had the police take Gus to an emergency room to keep him from hurting himself. Gus was furious and felt betrayed by his father, but Deeds knew it had to be done.
The 6-Hour Expiration
If Gus could be admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he could get treatment and be put back on his medications, Deeds believed everything would be alright. However, the court order expired after six hours as part of a state law designed to protect patients’ rights. If the staff at the emergency room couldn’t find an available bed in a psychiatric hospital, Gus would be sent home.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. But, the next morning, I felt like there’d be a confrontation but I had no reason to think there’d be violence,” Deeds told 60 Minutes. “But you know, I got ready for work and I went out to the barn to feed the horses and Gus was coming across the yard and I said, ‘Hey, Bud, how’d you sleep?’ He said, ‘Fine.’ I turned my back. Had this feed thing in my hands, and he was just on me.” Gus started violently stabbing his father with a knife.
The Final Words
“I said, ‘Gus, I love you so much.’ I said, ‘Don’t make this any worse than it is.’ He just kept coming at me,” Deeds told 60 Minutes. Eventually, Gus stopped his attack, went into the home, and committed suicide with a rifle. When police arrived sometime after, Gus was declared dead on the scene. Deeds was in critical condition but was still alive. He was airlifted to the hospital and underwent life-saving surgery.
After the attack, Deeds couldn’t help but think about what could have happened if Gus hadn’t been turned away at the hospital. He couldn’t understand how someone who so clearly needed psychiatric treatment could be let loose after just six hours. “That makes absolutely no sense,” Deeds said in a speech. “An emergency room cannot turn away a person in cardiac arrest because the ER is full, a police officer does not wait to arrest a murder suspect or a bank robber if no jail space is identified.”
A Failed System
When Deeds later discovered that there were three open beds available the night before Gus took his life but that staff at the hospital failed to call all the facilities like they said they had, he was devastated. “Gus was a great kid. He was a perfect son. It’s clear the system failed. It’s clear that it failed Gus. It killed Gus,” Deeds said.
Fighting for Change
“I could either be lost in my grief or I could act – I chose to act,” said Deeds, who got back to work while the scars on his face were still healing. He dedicated himself to fixing the broken system that failed his son with the hope of turning the tragedy into positive change. After returning to work, Deeds championed a bill passed in both the House and Senate to extend the time for a court order from six to twelve hours. If a bed still isn’t found, a state hospital will have to admit the patient. Deeds has since worked tirelessly on a variety of reforms but knows there’s still so much to do. “I think there may be a bigger problem here,” Deeds told The Recorder. “I am alive for a reason, and I will work for change. I owe that to my precious son.”