March 25, 2019

Meet Russ Maurer: Jedi of Peer Mentoring

A long time ago in a hospital not so far away a peer mentor finds himself in a battle of wills.

by Chris Mosley, patient advisor

“He gets out his Star Wars light saber and starts stabbing me,” recalled Russ Maurer during a visit to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital one morning. But he didn’t mind because it was a toy light saber and the assailant was a 7-year-old boy named Matt who was waiting for a new heart.    

As a peer mentor for the Congenital Heart Center at Mott, Maurer gets to know and counsel pediatric patients and families who are navigating through a health crisis. A crisis he is all too familiar with himself. 

In 1990, Maurer’s son, Russell, was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome — a rare defect prohibiting blood to flow effectively to the body.

“At two weeks old, we were told he would maybe live another five years,” said Maurer. But thanks to the care at Michigan Medicine, those five years turned into 21. 

“We did everything a father and son could do — deer hunting, first car … When you know you’re going to lose somebody you love, you savor every moment, spend more time, pour more love into each other,” said Maurer.

An intense desire to help

Residing in Norville, Michigan, Maurer remembers the 25-mile drive he would take to visit his son at Mott. He called it the “Scream Road” a place where he could let out all his frustrations before walking into Russ’ room. It was a ride he took full advantage of. 

It’s those moments that remind him what patients and families are feeling; and those same moments help harbor his emotions while mentoring. 

“When you walk in that room, your intense desire to help patients overcomes your own personal experiences,” said Maurer, who has been a peer mentor for three years and is completely committed to this role. So much so, that he came out of retirement to take a job close to Mott just so he can be there every Wednesday.

Most people would find it hard to approach strangers who are going through an emotional and physical rollercoaster.

“Usually they’re receptive and if I see that they’re not, I just take it slow and tell them I’m here for them,” said Maurer about using his easygoing personality to break the ice. 

Some days are tougher than others. He never knows what to expect when he walks the hospital hallways. 

He has met patients on Wednesday and the following week they’re no longer there. And it’s especially difficult when he’s spent months laughing, talking and comforting patients and families that eventually experience loss. But those circumstances remind him how important his work is.

Maurer also volunteers on several committees at Michigan Medicine, and won the Celeste Castillo Lee Peer Mentor Award in 2018 for his dedication to his role as peer mentor. 

Treasuring each moment

“Going up in those rooms with the kids and their families is No. 1,” Maurer declared when asked to name his favorite activity.

As for Matt — the little boy wielding the light saber — he finally received his heart. And got to go home. It appears that Maurer is safe.

With a passion for helping others, Maurer plans to mentor at Mott for as long as he can.

“There’s a saying ‘where your treasure is, there your heart is also.’ I left a great treasure here, so my heart is here.”