Playing for the Cure: Brainstormin’

Playing for the Cure_Brainstormin'-2There’s one week to go until Playing for the Cure: Brainstormin’, a benefit concert for The Yale Brain Tumor Center next Friday, August 15th at The Ballroom at the Outer Space in Hamden, Connecticut.  All proceeds raised will be donated to the Nora Brignolo Fund, c/o Dr. Joseph Piepmeier at the Yale Brain Tumor Center to raise awareness and research for the cure to brain tumors and brain cancer.

The concert is featuring the talents of Broca’s Area and Daphne Lee Martin.  Seeing that I never blogged about it until now, I’ve included a link to one of the articles here.

My family and I completely overwhelmed by the show of support and generosity from the community already.  A huge thank you to media outlets such as the Hartford Courant, CTNOW, The New Haven Register, The North Haven Courier and The North Haven Post; our corporate sponsors The Hartford Courant, Stop and Shop, Edge Technologies, Doug Anderson, ShelfSpace Marketing, LLC, Carla’s Pasta and Severance Foods; and to all who have donated the awesome prizes for our raffle.  Your generosity and support of our effort is extremely appreciated.

For me, the work and time that are expended on putting an event like this together are a no-brainer (no pun intended) and I know my family would agree.  It is simple acts such as receiving a handwritten letter along with a check in the mail from a fellow brain tumor survivor, to receiving an email from a brain cancer warrior right here in Connecticut who had been looking so forward to our event letting me know that due to her medications and rigors of treatment that are currently wearing her down, it’s likely that she’ll be unable to attend but is sending a check regardless that make me realize my purpose in life and give me a sense of pride.

Please help me in this final week  to spread the word and help me in saying “thank you” to the doctors and caregivers who saved my life.  I look forward to seeing you all at The Ballroom at The Outer Space next Friday night!

Changes In Latitudes

At the time that my shunt was inserted, the doctors cautioned me that I should prepare myself for the day that it would need to be replaced.  Little did I know that that day would come just four years later.  While nothing in life is certain, nor should anything be taken for granted, the actual expectation was that the shunt would only need to be replaced every 10 years or so.

I’ll admit, I do not profess to understand all of the complexities and technicalities of the brain, though I wish I did.  Ever since my diagnosis, I have become fascinated with the brain, how it works and controls every part of the body.  I soak in everything I can possibly learn about it.  My doctors informed me of the signs and warnings that I should be on the lookout for that would signal a need to replace my shunt: redness or swelling along the path of the shunt, headaches, confusion, memory problems or any other symptom I experienced prior to having the shunt inserted would indicate there could be an infection or malfunction.

Knowing everything I had learned about my shunt made the results from my six-month follow up MRI in September of 2012 surprising.  I was feeling great and functioning normally – none of the signs my doctors warned me about were ever present.  Low and behold though, diagnostic imaging showed a buildup of cerebro-spinal fluid in the ventricles and a malfunction with the shunt.  But why wasn’t I manifesting the symptoms I had previously, such as trouble with my speech, confusion and aphasia?  Had I been so entangled with the bar exam that I lost sight of how I was feeling and lost my ability to assess myself?  Despite my optimism that all was well, my surgeon decided that it was already time for a shunt revision.

Emotionally, this was a major blow to my recovery process.  I had come such a long way in the span of 4 years and now I had to face the prospect of starting all over.  I feared that the shunt might not be as effective as the first one or that complications which I did not experience the first time around might arise.  I had finally found my groove and was comfortable with my new robotic mind – and now this.  Why couldn’t something, just anything, go right for me for a change?  But hey, nothing good comes out of complaining.  Glad I can find a sense of humor in these things now530e9c97ed7a3e96831b5a77bd3ca664.

On October 1, 2012, I headed back to Yale.  As I was wheeled into the OR and instructed to lie down on the cold metal slab for the surgery, I was again faced with the question of “what if?”  But in my head, I knew everything would be okay and I’d be as good as new in no time.  Before Ashley and my parents had the chance to enjoy the spread of food that the hospital serves them while I’m having my head drilled open, the surgery was done and I was back in my room sleeping off the anesthesia.  Sorry to them all that they were unable to finish their chocolate chip muffins…

This hospital stay was different from my previous stay, however.  Rather than being a complete invalid, I was conscious and alert of my surroundings and life around me.  Then again though, how could I not be?  I was woken up every hour by the nurse and resident neurosurgeon to take my temperature, make sure that I was sleeping, asking me questions such as “do you know what day it is” or “can you tell me where you are?”  My favorite one of that night though was “Chris, have you been walking around?”  I thought to myself, “seriously, at 4:30 in the morning?”  My response: “no doctor, I’m just trying to sleep.”  I had returned to my quick and sarcastic self in no time.

I wrote a text message to my parents at 4:30 that morning to share with them the latest updates.  I felt like my life had become a daytime soap opera.  img_ynhh_tab1Rather than General Hospital, I’d call it “Yale-New Haven – Against All Odds”.

How did my life come to this, I wondered.  But it did and I have learned to accept it because after all, life is full of adversity and I had learned to readjust the sails to go with the direction of the wind.

I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again

April 11, 2012 – it was my mom’s birthday!  But that date also holds another meaning for me.

I just finished eating dinner and was in the kitchen, when suddenly, out of nowhere, visual auras commenced.  I last experienced these in 2009 when I had my first seizure.  Here we go again.  Bring on the flashing lights and spinning room.  I panicked – I looked for someone, anyone, to catch my fall.  Within a matter of seconds, I was down on the floor – unconscious on the cold tile.  When I came to, I got myself over to the couch, put my head in my hands and said to myself “no, not again”.  I got on the phone with the closest people at the time – my parents, and they urged me to call Yale immediately.  The sound of concern in their voice resonates with me to this day.

Frightened and still disoriented, I called the hospital and left a message.   Within a matter of minutes, I heard my surgeon’s calming voice: “Chris – talk to me.  What happened?  How are you feeling? Is anyone there with you?  Did you take your medicine today?”  My responses were soft and slow, but at least I was able to answer.  At his direction, I took an additional Dilantin pill and assured him that I would be in contact as soon as someone arrived.

My brother, who fortunately lived nearby at the time, called and said he was on his way over to stay with me until my parents arrived.  While I pride myself on being an independent person, I have to admit that I was relieved to hear him say that he was minutes away.  As I was walking away from the door after unlocking it, out of nowhere once again, the auras returned, I twitched, spun around and was down.

I was woken up to the voices of my parents and brother, all of them nervously hovering over me.  My parents pressed me for answers to the questions, but knew that I was incapable of answering.  We all sat together for a few minutes on the couch and no one really said much.  I think we were all in shock and scared – or at least that is how I felt.  When the small talk reconvened, I told them that I talked with my surgeon and took another pill at his direction.  Rightfully so, they were concerned about the second seizure at the moment.  The three of us sat on the couch for a few more minutes, nobody saying anything and fearing the worst.  We rushed down to the emergency room at Yale-New Haven Hospital where more blood tests and an MRI were ordered and I was pumped up with medicines.  I was finally released around 3:00 in the morning.

Home to sleep for a few hours then back to Yale we went for an appointment with my surgeon.  Because I was alone for both seizures, there were not many answers to the questions as to why this happened twice in succession.   The results of my MRI were clear – there was nothing present on the scans that was cause for concern.  However, the results of blood levels provided further insight.

After my first seizure in 2009, I was prescribed Phenytoin (or more commonly known as Dilantin) and instructed to take 300/mg twice per day.  Phenytoin is used to control and prevent seizures and works by decreasing abnormal electrical activity in the brain.  The one caveat – the drug is dependent upon your body’s ability to absorb the drug in the bloodstream.

Thanks to breakthroughs in science, blood tests are used to determine whether the drug concentrations are in the therapeutic range.  For a patient my age and weight, the magical range is between 10-20mg.  When I arrived at the ER, my phenytoin level was down to six.  Yikes!  I was given a loading dose – 10 to 15mg by slow IV drip, at a rate not to exceed 50mg per minute.  After the IV had completed and the drug was in my system for some time, the blood test was re-administered.  Shockingly, the level had only gone up to an eight.

My surgeon referred me to a neurologist – someone who specializes in and is better equipped to handle seizure disorders.  During my visit with the neurologist, he explained that Dilantin’s requirement to stay concentrated in the bloodstream does not work for some people for reasons unknown.  Fortunately, there are other medications that can be taken that do not depend on blood concentration.  I take this moment to introduce levetiracetam, also known as Keppra.

I am prescribed to take the maximum daily dosage of 1,500/mg twice per day.  With Keppra, the drug instead works by communicating with nerve signals in the brain.  I just picked up my prescription at CVS and have the paperwork here which reads: “Leveiteracetam has been shown to decrease the number of seizures in adults and children.  It is not known how it works to prevent seizures.”  Awesome right?  But for whatever its worth, and knock on wood, I have been seizure free now since April 11, 2012.  I’m not sure if that was my mom’s birthday wish that year, but I like to think so.

Life continues to throw curveballs at me.  Though I never hit one of them as a kid, probably because I never had good eyesight (I like to think that it was due to the tumor growing, but that’s highly unlikely), I knock everyone out of the park now.  Watch out Ty Cobb, I’m coming for you.

I Fought The Law But The Law Won

So today is July 2, 2014.  “Why is that significant?”, you ask?  Well, today marks six years since my first craniotomy to remove the tumor.  Not a day goes by where I don’t think about that day, or the endless possibilities that leave me asking “what if?”  The night before that operation, I prayed that that night would not be my final night on this earth.  But here I am – tougher than ever.  At first, the one-year, two-year marks were somber reminders of what I had gone through – the travesty and fright that my family and I were faced with.  But now, they are cause for a celebration, or a “Brainaversary” as I like to call it.  Last year, for my fifth-year Brainaversary, Ashley baked me a brain cake.  imageHopefully, I’ll have another one waiting for me at home today!  Regardless, I wish to thank my family, friends, medical team and support group from therapy and school for their tireless support in my battle.  Without you, I would never be here today.  To think how far I’ve come in six short years (but what has also felt like an eternity at moments) is astounding.

Without more, I can’t leave you hanging so I’m going to get back to the story.  After all, my intent in writing this blog is not to gain sympathy votes but rather to inspire and connect with other warriors out there.

Back on March 11th, I wrote about waiting.  Reverting back to 2011, I was in a waiting period for the bar exam results to be revealed.  I’m not sure what was worse – taking the bar or waiting for results.

The exam lived up to all of the hype.  “Grueling” is the word I would use to exemplify the entire process.

Nothing could have prepared me for the moment I walked into the room and was handed the exam booklet.  Prior to that though, I was taken into the room where I would spend the next 4.5 hours.  After booting up my laptop and waiting at the prompt screen to type in the word “Start” to bring me to the first blank sheet of paper for my response, I waited some more while further instructions were read. At least some states, including Connecticut, now allow examinees to complete the essay portion using exam software that you must download and pay a license for.  Ahh yes, more money.

The overwhelming feeling of sitting with the Bar Examiner who gave the instructions to applicants with disabilities made it all become real.  All examinees must sign an oath and are then escorted into their hotel room where you are instructed to start your laptop and log in to the software.  Finally, I was handed the first six essays.  I took a deep breath, collected myself and then focused my attention on the task at hand.  While applicants can begin with any number they want, I started with number one and away I went.  The first six questions were pretty much what I expected and though I could have written for days, I did not have the stamina or time to do so.  Before I knew it, time was up and I had completed the morning session of day one – 1/4 of the bar exam was complete.  Given that the break was only an hour, and at the advice of past applicants, I brought my lunch.  I was able to find a private, quiet seat outside where I ate – all while being completely exhausted and wondering how the hell I was going to go back in there and write for 4.5 more hours.  But I had to, and I did.  The six questions administered after lunch were even harder, but maybe that’s because I was drained from the energy expended on the first six and the work-up that I put into this day.  Nonetheless, the questions all called for responses that I knew, except for one but it’s okay, I made some stuff up and explained my reasons for what I was saying.  Before I knew it, time was called and day one was over.

Day two of the bar exam is known as the Multistate Bar Exam (the “MBE”).  You know…those really long multiple choice questions that I described in part one of this post.  After the morning session and 100 questions, I was mentally and physically exhausted.  I had no energy left.  On my lunch break, I wanted to just put my head down and take a nap. I was so close now though – I would fight hard until the end, just as I had done in getting to this point and putting myself in a position to be sitting at the desk taking the exam.  Yet, questions 101-200 were more of the same: oddly worded questions, many filled with old, ancient law that required you to have a brain like a sponge.  Thanks BarBri for the charts telling me that these types of questions were only tested a very small percentage of the time.

However, the clock continued to wind down and the 6:00 hour approached.  Finally, with a few seconds to spare, I had bubbled in my final marking on the scantron sheet.  Jubilation!  I had just completed the bar exam.  Where were all of the people who said that I would never return to law school, let alone graduate or sit for the bar?  What about the medical report that stated I should forget about going back to law school and was likely to remain at the capacity of a second-grader?  When I got home, I had a celebratory dinner with my family who was there for me every step of the way.  I had nothing else to do but to sit and wait for results.

In the months that followed, I replayed questions over in my head again and again.  Fortunately, I returned to work at law firm in Connecticut where I was keeping busy in the asbestos defense practice.

October 7, 2011 was a bright and sunny morning.  This was the day the Connecticut bar exam results were to be released.  In Connecticut, the committee simply posts on its website the names of those examinees who passed the exam and are recommended for admission to the bar.  So everyone and anyone can get onto a computer and look – not the fairest or best way for nervous examinees.  Nonetheless, I was confident this morning.  More than two months removed from taking it, I truly felt that I had passed and was about to burst into tears of joy.

After refreshing the page time and time again, the list of names appeared.  The names were presented in alphabetical order by the applicant’s last name.  Slowly, I scrolled though until I came to the C’s – there were lots of them.  I looked away from the screen, collected myself and then refocused my eyes on the screen.  I went one by one and low and behold, my name was not on the list.  I tried again and again, thinking perhaps I overlooked it in anticipation of the excitement.  But reality set in and my name was not on the list.

As a result of working for a law firm and all the attorneys having gone through the process, they knew that the results were also posted.  Before I even had the time to process what had happened, I received email after email offering condolences.  I needed to talk to my family; to Ashley – I could not handle the moment.  Within minutes, I received an email from the office administrator offering me the rest of the day off if I wished to leave and be with my support group at home.

The feeling of defeat stung for a little while.  But I had overcome so much that I knew I would be back to try again.  When I received my actual results from the Bar Examining Committee, I saw the score that I earned and the score needed to pass.  Without revealing the number, I knew I had to go for it again; I’d be a fool not to.

In the ensuing months, I geared up for the February 2012 exam and worked with a tutor to master the methods to take the exam.  One of the things that I learned from my score is that it was not a lack of knowing the information, but rather, there exists a defect in my ability to communicate my mastery of the subjects in my brain into the multiple choice answers that were provided after each question.  I’ll tell you this much – my essay scores were well above-average.  Given ample time and opportunity to explain my reasoning and analysis in reaching a conclusion, I have no trouble.  But when I am presented with a long and complex problem with four possible answers, all of which could arguably be correct, I have trouble.  I worked tirelessly to master the technique of reading and analyzing within the strict time constraints presented on the bar exam.

Now, for those unfamiliar with the process, only your scores on the multistate bar examination can be used on subsequent examinations but your essay scores cannot.  So my strong essay scores would go to waste.  I had no choice but to study and prepare for the entire exam again.  I took a leave of absence from work and locked myself in a room and library for the winter months.  The tutor provided me with some suggestions on how to approach the questions and additional tips to narrow the possible answer choices down to two.  From there though, it was a matter of processing the right answers from the wrong answers.  The bar exam does not test how smart you are.  Rather, it is a test of endurance to see if you can arrive at the “best” legal conclusion to a problem in a short period of time.  After two days and six hours, you will have handled two-hundred-and-twelve legal matters and counseled that many clients.

When time was called for the final time, I felt once again that I had done it.  Fast-forwarding to May 11th – results day.  Like a nervous wreck, I checked and checked the website until the list had been published.  I looked for my name, but again, my name did not appear. Upon seeing my results, I was astounded to find that my multiple-choice score had improved but my essay scores had dipped.  Go figure.  As a result, I was right where I was the first time.  There was no fluctuation in my score.

Well, the old saying is that the third time is the charm so I decided to try again.  I took some time off in between administrations of the exam to give myself a mental break and gear up for the studying and preparation.  I also had to find a way to pay for my life so I waited until July 2013 to retake the exam.  In addition to the financial situation, I figured that some time would be the best thing for me.  I still had all of my books to prepare and after much research and reviews, I opted to purchase flash cards to help me ingrain the material in my brain to allow me to quickly recall and spit out the material when I was presented with a problem on the exam.  After another leave of absence from work and countless hours of my life devoted to studying, the two days arrived.  I was again escorted into my private room where I would spend the next two days killing the rest of my good brain cells to pass the test.  But in what felt like a snap of the fingers, it was over and I was on my way home.

At the time that I registered to take the exam, I did not think to look when the bar exam results were going to be posted.  Yes, they actually tell you the dates the results will be released for the next three years that the bar exam is administered.  So I tell you this because on October 4, 2013, bar exam results were released – and I was on my honeymoon in Italy.  I dreaded the moment, but had to look – after all, I told Ashley that if I passed, I’d buy her a Louis Vuitton.  Plus, I just had a feeling that my luck was about to turn.  I had been through hell the past five years but had just married the girl that I loved and was with her eating everything in sight and drinking the best wine on earth.  So despite the data plan that I was paying for, I did it all through my phone.  And when I checked, I felt the same semblance of defeat I had grown accustomed to.  My name was not on the list.

For some who have been down this road, all hope might be lost.  But for me, I have so much to live for and strive for.  At the current time, I have decided to hold off on retaking the exam as my scores have not improved and at the recent advice of my surgeon who looked me in the eyes and said: “Chris – you will never be measured by your performance on an exam, but rather your testament in overcoming the odds to live and the only advice I can give you is to follow your heart.  You will succeed in whatever it is you want to do.”

That was all that I needed to hear.  I knew in my heart that right now, passing the exam was not meant to be, for reasons outside of my control.

The law may have won this time.  But at the end of the day, I’m alive and well.  I have my whole life to live and an exam cannot and will not define me.

I Won’t Back Down

For my readers who have a brain tumor or had a brain tumor, you will agree – life is that much more difficult for us.  And when you pile on preparing for the bar exam and the expectations to pass it, life becomes arduous.

To sit for the Connecticut bar exam, all applicants must pay a filing fee of $750.00.  The application consists of approximately 30 pages of questions and requirements such as listing every residence you held for more than thirty days, both temporary or permanent, since your eighteenth birthday or for the past ten years, whichever is shorter.  Oh, and in chronological order.  The application also requires an applicant’s employment history, again both temporary and permanent and in chronological order.  You will also need affidavits, letters of reference, a certified driving history, a copy of your law school application, verification of your law degree and a Certificate from the law school Dean which states that you entered law school on such and such a date and earned your degree on such and such a date.  And a contract to give up your firstborn child…not really, but might as well.

The exam is administered over two days, each day being 6 hours long.  Testing accommodations (special test-taking exceptions for applicants with qualified disabilities) are available, but any applicant who wishes to avail themselves of these must complete a further application and have his/her doctor complete paperwork and submit all supporting materials to prove the accommodations are necessary.

When I applied to take the ethics exam (a separate test you must pass before you can even apply for the bar exam), I applied for testing accommodations but received a letter which stated, in relevant part: “Your request for testing accommodations is denied because the documentation provided for review does not contain all of the essential elements…Your documentation does not contain any scores from relevant cognitive or achievement batteries to indicate a current substantial limitation to a major life activity.”

Seriously?!  My surgical reports which stated that I had a large tumor resected from my brain, along with having a device inserted allowing me to function on a day-to-day basis doesn’t constitute a “current substantial limitation to a major life activity”?

Not to fret though, my doctors and I would just send in additional records, along with past and current images of my MRIs.  In addition, we provided the results of the neuropsychogical tests accompanied with a letter providing an update on my diagnosis, changes since that test, current treatment (which would be the shunt and anti-seizure medicine) and rationale for providing me with extra time and a private testing room.  We submitted everything imaginable and I was notified that my request had been granted.  The bar exam application required the same documentation which meant that I had to resubmit all the same documents.

If you’re an applicant with a disability applying for admission to the bar, the first step for you is to apply for accommodations.  Applicants with a disability are entitled to apply for whatever accommodation that you “the applicant” deem necessary to provide you an equal opportunity to pass as the applicant next to you.

The bar exam, at least in Connecticut, begins both days at 9:00 a.m. and ends at 4:00 with an hour for lunch.  Ask most applicants and they will tell you they felt pressed for time.  After my tumor was removed, I was not the same person and 6 hours was not going be nearly enough time to complete the exam.  Completing certain tasks now took me a lot longer as the information did not process as quickly as it had previously; or, like my final exam, I’d read a problem and understand it in my head but then end up writing ten pages or garble.  So, what was I to apply for?

To start, I knew for sure that I would need extra time, that was a given.  And in talking with the bar examiner, if my request for extra time was granted, I would start earlier than the other examinees and end later in the day, but with one one-hour break for lunch only.  So I would need something to eat in the exam room.  And to drink.  So I requested both of these as well.  Additionally, I requested a private testing room to avoid being distracted by the hundreds of other examiners in the room.  After the tumor resection, my ability to maintain my focus had diminished and my thoughts turn to mush.  In order to receive any accommodation, my doctors had to complete paperwork that explained how “what” I was applying for would assist me in passing the exam.  You said it, it was a headache.

Not more than a month after everything had been submitted, I received a piece of mail from the bar examining committee notifying me that my request had been reviewed and granted.  My schedule was 8:30-1:00 and then 2:00-6:30.   I was permitted a private testing room, the extra time and a “quiet snack” (whatever that is).  A drink was permitted, but it MUST be put into a clear bottle so that the examiners can inspect it.

So, how does one prepare for the bar exam, you ask?  Well, before explaining the methods and strategies that some utilize, let me first tell you about the exam.  In Connecticut, the first day now consists of six essays and two multi-state performance test questions.  The times that I have taken it, it was 12 essays on various topics.  The bar examiners provide a listing of possible subjects from which they can draw questions.  I think there were 18 total subjects.  How nice.

Day two consists of two-hundred multiple choice questions, all drawn from 6 subject matters – you have three hours to complete 100 questions in the morning and then three hours to complete 100 questions in the afternoon.  These are not your run-of-the-mill multiple choice questions.  photo 2Rather, each question is a complex problem which requires you to sort through the facts, analyze everything and select the “best” answer.  Note that I wrote “best.”  On the bar exam, there is no “right” answer; rather, they want you to choose the “best” answer and when there are four options to choose from, you can pretty much make a sound argument that any one of the four is the best answer.

Now, for just $3,250.00, you can register for BarBri, a two-month bar review class designed to assist applicants in passing the exam.  Upon registering, a nice present will be delivered to your address – two boxes filled with books.  photo 1In the BarBri course, you attend classes in a lecture hall and fill in outlines in a book designed by course instructors.  But there’s a twist – the lectures have all been pre-recorded and are shown on a video.  If you have a question about any of the material, I’m sorry but you’ll have to email your question in and wait days for a response.  While there is no requirement to taking the course, you put yourself a pretty high disadvantage if you don’t because almost everyone else takes it.  And the books are chock-full of released questions.

The video begins roughly around 9:30 every day and ends around 1:00-1:30.  You then have about an hour to get home and eat lunch before you begin reviewing and analyzing the lecture outlines from that day.  The advice given is to outline your outlines to absorb the material.  Once that is complete, there are problem sets from the books pictured above to work through and complete.  The problem sets can take hours.  It’s a lot of work to get through 18 multiple choice questions as they are long and tedious and the only way to learn the legal concept is to answer the question and review the answers, specifically why the wrong answer is in fact wrong.

The best way to sum up taking the bar exam is exhausting.  A month into studying, you find yourself asking what have I learned the past month and how can I possibly remember all of this?  Don’t worry – you’re told on day one of bar review class that you won’t remember everything so don’t bother trying.  Wait, what??

Hazing.  Survival of the fittest.  I apologize in advance to the readers who are currently preparing for the exam next month – I have faith in you.

As for me?  I wasn’t nearly the fittest of the fit.  Two years removed from having surgery, my brain was still not what it used to be.  And I knew that it may never be.  I had studied all that I possibly could; done as many practice questions and practice exams as humanly possible.  I was mentally and physically exhausted.  As the exam approached, I feared for my life.  I feared that I would cause myself to have another seizure from the unnecessary stress of taking the exam, or yet, that the shunt would malfunction due to the stress I was putting on myself in trying to cram mounds of information into my brain.

No stopping me now though –  the moment had arrived – July 26-27, 2011.

 

Good Riddance

With a few more grades that raised my eyebrows, I shrugged it all off and went full steam ahead to the finish line – graduation day (sort of). While I would walk with my friends at graduation, I had to make up the one semester that I missed to recover (It’s still pretty remarkable to me that it was “only” one semester).   The old adage is that 1L they scare you to death (hmm, maybe this all makes sense now?), 2L they work you to death and 3L they bore you to death.  As the end of the third-year neared, all of my friends were in full-blown frenzy with the wretched bar exam quickly approaching.  For me, it was one of the happier times of my life.

It was a  bittersweet day.  Law school represented, and still represents, the most tumultuous period of my life.  Those three years brought out the best and worst of me, but graduation day meant it was time to say goodbye to so many good friends and the state that I had called home for three years.  I was on the verge of the sweetest victory I could have scripted – earning my juris doctor degree.  If you were to ask pretty much anyone on July 2, 2008 if I would ever finish my degree, you would find that the majority would say “no”.  But not me.

All that stood in the way of me and that moment was one semester at Quinnipiac University School of Law.  Why didn’t I continue at Roger Williams, you ask?  Simply put, I realized that all of my peers that I had entered this chapter of my life with would be leaving after we walk across the stage and would be returning to their respective homes to begin their careers.  Back to Massachusetts…back to Arizona…back to New York….back to Connecticut.  Everyone was scattering and what was I to do there without my support group?  I needed someone to be there for me, who knew my struggles in the classroom as well as my medical history to guide me through the last semester and so  I opted to complete my final semester as a visiting student at Quinnipiac University.

Quinnipiac is set out over acres of beautiful land with Sleeping Giant State Park in the backdrop.  On the flip side though, how was I to cope with not watching the morning fog roll through the Mt. Hope Bridge or hearing the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks?  I’d manage – at least I had my mom’s home cooked meals again to get me through.  In retrospect, my final semester at Quinnipiac was everything that I could have hoped for.  The professors were wonderful and understanding to my personal situation and the time went quickly – very quickly.  Before I could even blink, it was November 1st and talk about final exams began or presenting our final paper, which in essence, we short novels full of legal jargon.  To top it all off, the bar exam began to play on my mind and I asked myself “how” I was going to get through the remainder of the semester and through all of the adversity that awaited me.  But on that same day, I received this email…

Email

Now talk about support.  This email is just a sample of the support that I provided by my family and friends throughout law school and during my illness.  This was all the motivation that I would need to carry me through to the end.  Once again, my parents were right there to pick me up and provide me the encouragement that I needed to dig deep within and find the will to get through the semester.  I know I sound like a broken record, but without the support of my family, especially my parents, none of this would be possible and I would be unable to write this blog.

As I typed the final “ . ” of my last final exam, I was overcome with joy.

Sweet victory, I had accomplished the unimaginable.  GraduationAfter all of the trauma my brain had overcome and the adversity I faced, I was finished.  There were no words to express the sense of pride and accomplishment that I felt at that moment.

What came next was trying to figure how to pass the bar exam – but how?  There was no holding me back now though.  I had worked so hard and had come so far.  But being human, I think and wonder what I would have done with my life had I been diagnosed prior to enrolling in law school.  But what’s in the past is in the past.  I dismissed the fact that exams were now even more difficult for me than they had been previously.  After forking over nearly a thousand dollars just take the bar exam, in addition to thousands to take a prep course, I was on my way once again.  Or wasn’t I?  I’ll save the topic of the bar exam for another day.

For now, I celebrated my accomplishments.  Graduating law school…I was on cloud nine.  I was having the “time of my life.”

Celebrate We Will Because Life Is Short But Sweet for Certain

So you didn’t get that job that you applied for?  Or maybe you got a C as opposed to B in that class?  Did you stay at the office late today, and yet still have piles of work to get through?  Your car’s broken down…again.  Sure these are all legitimate problems and life sure is full of them.   What matters is how we deal with them and how we come out on the other side.

Coming home in May, not even a year removed from receiving my diagnosis, I had a new outlook on life.  My first semester back at law school was eye opening.  Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to do well and maintain my class ranking, but I also refused to push myself too hard and kill myself over schoolwork.  During my hospital stay, my medical team constantly reminded me that I would never be measured by my classroom or courtroom experience.  No matter what happened after my hospital stay, I would always be defined by my determination and perseverance in overcoming obstacle after obstacle.

During the ensuing months following my surgeries, I was a spectator to life.  I viewed everyday occurrences with an open mind.  No longer did I stress about getting an A.  Did I want to?  Of course (I am Type A, after all); but I knew that if I attended class throughout the semester, analyzed the readings, studied and completed practice exams, I had done all that I could do and whatever grade I earned at the end was okay with me.

From day one of the first year, the focus is finding a job and earning exorbitant amounts of money.  Now, let me clear this up for you right now – that’s a fallacy.  Unless you finish in the top 25% of the class, you bounce around from job to job or maybe even through temp agencies and in real life, never make those millions you imagined were possible.  After my performance first year, I didn’t even concern myself with making it into the top quarter of the class, but even if I did, I’d be crazy to push myself that hard.  Life is far too short and fragile to let one insignificant thing in the grand scheme of things consume you.  I watched countless friends obsessively agonize over outlining and analyzing cases and statutes to earn the grade they were striving for.

The same holds true in practice.  I am simply amazed by how many of my peers stress over getting the hours in or getting their motion heard on the court calendar.  I just watch in amazement and think to myself “what if?”  When I witness such events, it takes every ounce of energy out of me to not say something, but I understand it – we all work hard and want good results for efforts.  If you work for a law firm, you have billing requirements that you must meet by years end, and after all, we need to keep our jobs to put food on the table.  But at what cost? It makes me wonder why as a society, we have created all of these human manufactured stressors.

I don’t mean to diminish your worries.  They are real and legitimate.  At the same time, I urge you to never stop focusing on the big picture and seeing what is truly important.  It seems to me that we too often take for granted what we have and lose sight of what really matters because we are too busy focused on nonsense.  Ever since I’ve recovered, I’ve felt like my life is moving in fast motion.  I have since learned to make sure I then take a deep breath and calmly approach the situation when I find myself getting stressed or frustrated.  My persona has changed immensely and I know this is a blessing in disguise.  Gone are the days where I rushed around, driving myself nuts to get everything accomplished by some arbitrary deadline.  I got my second chance, and I refuse to waste it by missing out on life’s joys.

For me, when real trouble arose, the question was not “do you want to have brain surgery?”  There was no option or decision to make – it was  “Chris, you need to have brain surgery.”  Not once, not twice…but four times, in addition to one gamma knife surgery.  I had brain surgery...This was my life and the cards that I was dealt and I coped with it all.  Like other situations, it’s not ideal, but unlike any of the scenarios in the first paragraph, this is a REAL problem and there’s no time to think about it or mull over your decision.  Instead, you have to rise to the occasion and learn to grow from it.  My obstacles have aged me years beyond my date of birth and I no longer stress over situations like those I mentioned here.  I’m the first to admit it – prior to my surgery, I focused on school and finding a job.  However, after my diagnosis, I realized that the important things in life are those that we have in front of us – family, friends and health.  With those three things in hand, the goals are infinite and life is good.  Yet, I still find reasons to throw on this t-shirt…

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