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Breakfast, bike parade to benefit North Allegheny grad who suffered brain-injury

| Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
The O’Connor family gathers UPMC Mercy in Pittsburgh to celebrate Clay O'Connor's father's birthday July 28, 2013. Along with Clay O'Connor (front row, center), who is being treated for at raumatic brain injury, are his mother, Sallie (back row), his brother, Cody (front, left) and father, John..

The Bradford Woods Volunteer Fire Company will hold a bike parade and pancake breakfast Aug. 24 to help pay for expenses incurred by a local resident who suffered a traumatic brain injury this summer.

On June 22, Clay O'Connor, a 2009 North Allegheny Senior High School graduate, was skateboarding with a friend near the Lehigh University campus in Bethlehem, Pa., where he was one semester away from graduating with a degree in industrial engineering. It was too hot to wear a helmet, he thought — even though he had always been diligent about wearing one in the past.

“It was a freak accident,” explained his mother, Sallie O'Connor, 44, of Bradford Woods. “He flipped off his skateboard and landed on his head, cracking his skull from the top of his forehead all the way back to the top of his neck.”

He sustained severe damage to his frontal lobe, which controls motor function, problem solving and memory, among other things.

He needed three surgeries within the first few days of the accident. Nearly a quarter of O'Connor's cranium had to be removed in order to relieve the pressure on his brain due to swelling.

O'Connor, 22, spent 16 days in a critical-care unit and another five days in intensive care. He spent a week of that time in a medically induced coma.

Once stabilized, he was transported by ambulance from St. Luke's University Hospital in Bethlehem to UPMC Mercy in Pittsburgh to be closer to this family.

The fire company's fundraiser will help the O'Connor family with expenses not covered by insurance, such as the five-hour ambulance ride from Bethlehem to Pittsburgh, which ran $3,800, as well as costs associated with modifying the family's home to accommodate O'Connor's limitations.

Clay O'Connor had served as a junior firefighter or firefighter with the fire company for four years.

The Aug. 24 event will be at the fire hall, 4908 Wexford Run Road. It will kick off at 9 a.m. with a half-mile bike parade, led by a firetruck, through the streets of Bradford Woods. All participants must wear helmets. A contest for the best-decorated bike is open to all children through the eighth grade.

After the parade, pancake and sausages will be served until 11 a.m. Donations will be collected.

“Clay was born and raised here in Bradford Woods. He had his fingers in many different parts of the community. He was a volunteer fireman here. He earned his Eagle Scout award here. He helped the community in many ways, and now, we want to give back,” said Shelly Muhlenkamp, 47, of Bradford Woods, who is coordinating volunteers for the fundraiser.

O'Connor's mother said he is engaged in physical, occupational and speech therapies for five hours a day to re-learn simple skills and everyday tasks.

But doctors have warned the family that it will take another 12 months to have a better idea of the outcome.

“He can walk, play his guitar and win at chess, but he can't remember what happened yesterday. His cognitive reasoning is also affected. Nobody knows whether he'll ever be able to drive a car again or finish his degree at Lehigh,” his mother said.

O'Connor's mother hopes he will be well enough to attend the fundraiser.

“Clay loves pancakes,” she said. “Through this entire experience, I've seen such goodness and kindness in people. It has changed my life. I didn't ask for this change, but it happened.

“To motivate and inspire Clay, I told him about the huge support system he has,” she continued. “I told him about all the people who have rallied behind him, about all the kind and wonderful things people are doing to help, including this upcoming bike parade and pancake breakfast.

“He smiled at me, then replied, ‘That's great.'”

Laurie Rees is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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