Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A story of hope

Two months ago, teenager Blair Stewart was near death after a grisly car crash. Today he's back home and beating the odds. Gordon Sinclair Jr. tells the story of his 'miracle' comeback.

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His mother isn't sure what to call it.

"I've never been in the middle of a miracle before," Cyndy Stewart said in awe.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't thank God for giving my son back."

Two months ago, her then 17-year-old son Blair -- the captain of the Shaftesbury High School hockey team -- was involved in a traffic accident that left him near death for more than a week.

He was so severely brain damaged that doctors warned his parents that if he survived he might never walk or talk again.

But by mid-July, a month and a half later, Blair Stewart was home playing hoops on the driveway of his Tuxedo home.

And beating his pals at pool.

How did he do it?

That's what this story is about.

* * *

IT starts on a May morning, a month before graduation.

Blair and his pal, Mark Reimer, had just grabbed some breakfast at McDonald's and were heading back to school.

Mark was driving.

But as he tried to turn his blue Mustang left off Kenaston at Taylor, it collided with a gravel truck.

The truck rammed into the passenger side, where Blair was sitting.

Mark would escape major physical harm.

But emergency workers would need 45 minutes, and the Jaws of Life, to free Blair.

Blair's mother, Cyndy, was teaching at a nearby elementary school when she got the call that her son had been in a traffic accident. His father, Doug, the general manager of Wardrop Engineering, had just landed in Saskatoon when he got the call.

Later that morning Cyndy was at her son's bedside in the Health Sciences Centre's emergency ward, and Mark and his parents were with her, when a doctor approached.

"The CAT scan had showed one of the worst head injuries that he'd ever seen," Cyndy recalled later.

There was brain stem damage and multiple small hemorrhages.

Cyndy remembers feeling faint and needing a chair.

Blair's dad had grabbed a quick return flight to Winnipeg and was by his son's side shortly after noon.

By 2:30 p.m. Blair was transferred to surgical intensive care.

The swelling had started.

"The key to his survival was to make that swelling stop," Cyndy said.

For the first week, Blair needed all the magic medicine could offer.

Drugs kept him comatose, his temperature low, and his body frozen in a protective, paralytic state.

The first week or so was the critical time line for Blair.

Each day, his mother had to be prepared to lose him.

"Nobody said there was absolutely no hope," Cyndy said. "They said if there was anyone who was going to beat the odds it was going to be a young person who was really fit. And that was Blair."

He was a high school hockey all-star, baseball player and golfer.

His goal, in fact, was to go to university next year and become a phys-ed teacher.

But there was a wild card in his prognosis that only his parents, and maybe his hockey coach, really understood.

Blair's will.

"He's just a plain stubborn kid," Cyndy said.

His hockey coach elaborated.

This is what he wrote on Blair's team sweater, the one the players all signed and he delivered to the hospital.

"I selected you captain for your strength and leadership," the message Blair couldn't read began. "And those rare qualities are the ones which will pull you through like you pulled us through so many times."

It was near the end of that critical first week that Cyndy got some news that more bad news.

A doctor asked Cyndy to come to the family room with him.

He told her that Blair had to come off the paralytic.

And the swelling in his head had not stopped.

"He said they weren't able to control it and that basically we should prepare ourselves."

Then, that evening, as if he understood that he had to give doctors a sign, Blair opened his eyes.

Just a crack.

There was hope.

By Day 12, his eyes were wide open and everyone else's were tearing.

"We came in their crying," Cyndy said. "Even the nurses were crying."

They had always talked to Blair, just in case he could hear them.

Now they talked with even more purpose.

"You've had accident," they told their son. "You're going to be OK. You're going ton have to fight and be brave."

That was June 10.

By June 26, he was well enough to go home for a visit.

It was convocation day for Salisbury High School.

Blair had missed his 18th birthday while in the haze that was the hospital, but he wasn't going to miss graduation day.

The Reimers met the Stewarts at Emmanuel United Pentecostal Church.

They had brought Blair's cap and gown.

Mark, and another friend, pushed Blair on stage, as the assembled grads and their families applauded.

Then, 12 steps away from where the principal stood with his diploma, the wheelchair stopped.

Blair stood up.

And as he stood and began to walk, 1,000 people stood with him.

The applause went on and one.

It was a lunch hour a couple of weeks later.

Doug Stewart went to visit his son in the rehab unit where he'd been transferred.

But he wasn't there.

They searched the ward. Then began putting out ever-widening coded alerts.

A young patient with brain damage had gone missing.

He couldn't have gone far, the hospital reasoned. He was recovering from a brain injury and he hadn't been practice walking for long.

It was his dad who found him eventually.

He was walking along Grant Avenue in his pajama bottoms, jersey and sandals.

Blair was just a few blocks from home, and 10 kilometres from the HSC.

"Whaddya up to?" his dad asked him.

"I was sick of that place," Blair said. "And I just wanted to come home."

A week later, on the day he finally went home to stay, his parents did something special for him.

They walked him backwards through all the steps - all the wards - that he been through in those seven weeks, less a day.

Right back through ICU to Emergency.

One nurse who saw Blair kept touching his arm, as if to convince herself that it was really him, and not some apparition.

"Blair," she told him, "you came so close."

XXX

Last week Blair was shooting hoops with a buddy when I drove up to his home.

Just like his mother had told me.

He's still not his robust self.

He's still frustrated by how much he can't remember

"Things happen every day but they seem like they happened a long time ago," is how he describes it to his parents.

But Cyndy and Doug and Blair's younger sister Lindsay see improvement every day.

How does it feel to be home, I asked him.

Good," he said. "Very good."

What do you want to do with the rest of your life, I asked Blair.

"Get back to normal," he replied.

And how long do you think that will take.

"A couple of weeks," Blair said. "A couple of months."

Then he smiled.

"I'll try to make it a couple of months."

If the message on the hockey sweater didn't answer the question how he did it, how he survived, that should.

His mother knows he couldn't do it alone, that he needed a team.

The doctors and nurses, everyone who came to visit, everyone who prayed for them, and shared their hope.

"I think it's a story of hope with a message to never give up," Cyndy Stewart said.

"Miracles can and do happen."

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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