Upper St. Clair's Blair: 'I didn't know I was having a stroke'
Rori Blair had a headache that felt like he was being pounded by a hammer.
Ty Kenney wondered what was wrong with his son that he would sleep through the smells of Easter brunch, why he couldn't bring himself to pack for the family trip the next day to the Dominican Republic.
“He starts talking, and it's not slurred speech,'' Kenney said. “The sentences just didn't make any sense. They were all garbled. Until then, we thought he was trying to get out of going on vacation with his parents.”
Blair went to St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, was flown by helicopter to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and sedated to lower his blood pressure.
“I honestly thought it was a headache,” Blair said. “I went to sleep and woke up, and it just didn't feel right. I didn't know I was having a stroke.”
At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Rori Blair was a starting defensive end and special teams demon for Upper St. Clair's WPIAL Class AAAA finalists last fall.
“With his speed, quickness and length,” USC coach Jim Render said, “he gave a lot of people fits.”
That was before doctors found bleeding on his brain, attributed to a brain Arteriovenous Malformation, which occurs when a tangle of blood vessels bypasses normal brain tissue and diverts blood from the arteries to the veins. Brain AVMs are rare, found in less than 1 percent of the general population.
So, Blair was lucky to survive.
Five days later, he flatlined. Blair was resuscitated after a reaction to medication, which kept him sedated for 10 days. The next concern was surgery.
“If it came down to it, I was supposed to get my skull cracked open,” Blair said, “but my dad looked for other ways.
“I love him for that.”
Blair's stepmother, optometrist Monika Marczak, used her medical contacts to learn about a non-invasive procedure, Gamma Knife stereostatic surgery, that could shrink the AVM with a low dose of radiation.
Blair spent several weeks undergoing therapy at the Children's Institute in Shadyside, working on his motor skills. Render visited almost every day. The USC booster club bought Blair an iPad, which he used for crossword puzzles to test his short-term memory loss.
“It was like part of his timeline was erased,” Kenney said. “You had to explain every day why he was there. The next day, you had to do it again.”
What frustrates Blair is when he can conceptualize words but has trouble verbalizing them. He snaps his fingers to jar his memory in trying to enunciate.
“Silently, I can read anything,” he said. “When I say it, it comes out wrong. I don't know why. It just happens.”
Blair always wanted to play football but was too big until ninth grade. He went from a raw talent to one receiving interest ranging from Arizona to Pitt.
This week, Blair's doctor declined to clear him for contact sports, which means he can't play football his senior season.
“It wasn't a contact injury,” Kenney said, “but being that it was a brain injury, we're being cautious.”
Kenney was the first in his family to graduate from college, earning two degrees from Duquesne, and vows that he won't be the last. He's proud that Rori is an honors student.
Blair is debating whether to graduate on time or petition the WPIAL for a ninth semester of eligibility in hopes of playing football next fall.
“He's very torn with that,” Kenney said. “As a parent, I don't care about sports one little bit — even though I played sports all my life — because I'm academics first. I know sports is a big part of his makeup. I know what he wants and it would be good for him, but he has to make that decision.”
The easy smile disappears from his son's face. Right now, Rori Blair doesn't know what he wants to do, only that he's happy to be alive.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7812.