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Sean Kirst: Despite the hurricanes of life, this Bills backer says she's lucky

Katie O'Brien's apartment in Houston is on the fifth floor. She parks her car in an elevated ramp. When Hurricane Harvey engulfed the city, she looked out her window and saw floodwaters pouring down the street.

She was dry. Her car would start. The way she sees it, she was lucky.

"Where my heart breaks is for all these people who can't get out," she said of Houston, and now anyone in the path of Hurricane Irma. "My heart breaks for the people who have lost their homes, or the people who are immobile and can't leave, or the people who were trapped in nursing homes."

Katie O'Brien, a Buffalo native who now lives in Houston, has struggled with cancer as well as with Hurricane Harvey, but she is on her annual trip here to go to the Bills opener. She tours Canalside with her boyfriend, Stuart Renfro, and parents Matt and Joan, on Sept. 8. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

When we spoke, she made no reference to her own cancer,  until there was no way to avoid it.

O'Brien, 34, a neuropsychologist from Kenmore, is president of the Houston Bills Backers, an official group of Bills fans. During the season, her friends gather to watch the games at Christian's Tailgate Midtown, a Houston tavern, where they eat Sahlen's hot dogs with Weber's mustard.

The group consists mainly of Western New Yorkers who moved to that Texas city – although O'Brien's high-energy Bills enthusiasm has won over even Stuart Renfro, her boyfriend and a Texas guy raised on the Cowboys.

She waited out Harvey while doing what she could for other members, and she did not see her own tale as especially compelling. It was through O'Brien, and her Bills Backers Facebook page, that I learned of several people from this region who faced severe trials during the flood.

[Sean Kirst: Sad end to search for Buffalo native's bulldog, lost in Harvey flood]

Toward what I thought would be the end of a casual conversation, she made a passing reference to her new kitten, a rescue animal she calls "Jolie."

Why Jolie?

Katie O'Brien on her final round of chemotherapy. (Family photo)

She explained: The actress Angelina Jolie set an international example for women who had preventive double mastectomies.

Only then did O'Brien describe her own experience. She learned in February that she had breast cancer. By July, she was posting photos on Facebook from her final chemotherapy session at the hospital.

In those images, above a wide smile, she wears a Bills hat.

"We all go through hard things," she said.

O'Brien is in Buffalo this weekend. She returns every September to join old friends from Kenmore West High School at the Bills home opener. But this trip is an especially powerful homecoming.

Seven months ago, the Patriots-Falcons Super Bowl was played in Houston. O'Brien watched the game from her apartment, with Renfro. Through the window, they saw celebratory fireworks above the city.

That day, she discovered a lump on her breast.

It was cancer. O'Brien had one breast removed in February, and then began chemotherapy last spring. Amid those treatments, she learned she had tested positive for the gene mutation that elevates the chance of a recurrence.

O'Brien chose to have another mastectomy. It is scheduled for Oct. 31. Despite what many of her friends insist with tongues in cheek, she did not intentionally set it up in a way that will allow her to watch the Bills play on Thursday night that week, against the Jets.

She is from a classic Bills family. Her father, Dr. Matthew O'Brien, said she had little choice in her loyalty. As a 12-year-old in Buffalo, he was in the old War Memorial Stadium when the Bills won the 1964 American Football League championship against the San Diego Chargers. He can remember watching a game from inside the scoreboard, which was operated by a friend's father.

His daughter would much rather talk about the Bills, or friends struggling with the hurricane, than about herself.

Joan O'Brien, her mother, describes her as "determined and kind," an extrovert with a "tremendous commitment to getting things done."

Amid the flooding of Houston during hurricane Harvey, O'Brien brought some of her own clothes to the hospital for patients or their family members. She dropped off cat food at a shelter filled with animals rescued from the streets. She continues to worry about co-workers and fellow members of the Bills Backers who are coping with extreme damage to their homes.

During the storm, O'Brien missed only one day as a team leader at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital, which is exactly one more day off than she took during chemotherapy. She works with patients she describes as suffering from "disorders of consciousness."

In simpler terms, she said she is a psychologist for men and women in comas, vegetative or minimally conscious states.

Yes, she said, it is sometimes true that people who cannot visibly respond might be able to hear what you say.

Katie O'Brien: A chance meeting, at the Bills game in Seattle, with Kim Pegula, a principal owner of the team. (Family photo)

Asked why she chose her profession, she laughed.

"Another story," she said.

It began when she was a  high jumper in high school. One day, she fell and hit her head, hard.

By sheer chance, during an examination, doctors discovered a cyst on her brain. Seemingly out of nowhere, she was in danger. She needed brain surgery. There was no guarantee she would get through it without permanent cognitive loss.

When she woke up afterward, "I was fine," O'Brien said.

Based on her own gratitude for the way that it turned out, she committed herself to a career helping people with profound brain injuries.

[Sean Kirst: For Niagara County native in Houston, family is stronger than flood]

O'Brien went on to the University of Rochester, where she set a school record in the 800 meters as a middle distance runner. She did her graduate work at the University of Houston and decided to settle there.

She loves her job. She works with colleagues she deeply admires. Some of them slept at the hospital on the worst nights of the storm.  One nurse made her way on foot, for three miles, through the flood.

Again, O'Brien saw herself as fortunate.

"I was warm. I was dry. I had lots of food," she said.

And she finished her chemotherapy before Harvey blew in.

She spoke Friday with concern about all those threatened by another hurricane, Irma, even as she enjoyed a few hours with her family at old Erie County haunts. With Renfro and her parents, O'Brien had gone on what she described as an eating tour at some favorite spots: Wings at Duff's, hot dogs from Ted's, lunch at Canalside.

Houston, she said, is now where she belongs. In a year she will always associate with cancer, chemo and hurricanes, her friends there rallied around her. She worries, whenever she leaves, about her patients.

Yet O'Brien has learned one classic truth of Buffalo: You can move far away and still define yourself, more than ever, by the resilience and communion of the place where you grew up.

That only makes her a small part of the real story, she insists. She's just one fan, in countless thousands, who feels glad the Bills are home.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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