Tag Archives: adversity

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…

How to Save a Life

In our lives, we all have someone that we can rely on to lift our spirits and make us smile.  In the summer of 2008, I realized how lucky I was to have more than someone – I had an entire army of support and caregivers.  So without more, I dedicate this post to my guardian angels.

Dr. Piepmeier, Director of Neuro-Oncology, Yale New Haven Hospital – I do not even know where to begin to thank you and tell you what you mean to me.  From the moment you stepped into the consultation room and we met for the first time, I knew you were going to get the job done.  Your professionalism and courtesy to my family and I during such a tumultuous summer is never forgotten.  I often think of what it would have been like had another surgeon handled my case; fortunately, I never need to think about that.  My family can attest to the fact that, upon receiving the diagnosis, I was scared of the unknown, but after meeting you and hearing the plan of action prior to the procedure, I was at peace and prepared for battle.   Then and now, you provide me with a reassuring sense of confidence that I could not give myself.

Betsey, Clinical Care Coordinator, Department of Neuro-Oncology – When I received my diagnosis and spoke with you for the first time, you had a calming effect on me. I instantly knew that, as bad as the diagnosis was, the team of doctors who were assigned to my case were going to get me through this and back on my feet and doing all that I planned to do in this life.  I feel so fortunate to be able to rely on you as my go-to person to have questions answered.  But more importantly, you provided me the hope that I needed to assure me that things would get better and to keep the faith.  Your smile and positive outlook has had a profound effect on me and for that, I am forever grateful.

Aunt Linda – Thank you. You have truly played such an important role in getting me back to the point where I am at now in my life. Your patience and grace in working with me never goes forgotten. As a 24 year old, trying to re-establish the connection between what I saw and was thinking and trying to verbalize those thoughts was demoralizing.  As you were showing me those flash cards, you never lost the patience and willingness to continue to work with me even as I struggled.  Your emails made me smile and your cards with words of wisdom resonate.  You are a wonderful person and I feel extremely fortunate to have you a part of my family.

Dr. Quagliarello (Dr. Q), MD – Not only are you a great family friend, a father of one of my great friends I met in elementary school and baseball coach of Famous Foods, but you have been a great source of support, care and guidance.  I often flash back to the day I was admitted to the hospital after receiving the diagnosis…knowing my mom called Joyce, who in turn contacted you and you rushed down to the room where I was waiting to see the doctors just so that you could be there with my parents and I.  You were able to provide comfort to me in a time that I needed it the most, but I know that for my parents, you provided them with a sense of hope that I was in good hands at Yale and with Dr. P.  Thank you for always checking in on me during daily visits to Yale and the house, as well as providing support to my family during a tough time.

Ellen, Speech Pathologist at Gaylord Hospital – When we first met, I was in complete disbelief that my life had taken such a drastic turn that I was in need of speech and cognitive therapy but I am happy to have been referred to you.  The alphabet board; the flash cards; the exercises to restore my strength – what was I to do with those, I wondered?  You laid out a plan for me, never grew tired of watching me struggle and never lost faith in my ability – you knew I was in there somewhere and kept prodding and encouraging me to keep trying and practicing.  Sure enough, I did it and I owe a great deal of my recovery to you.  Thank you.

To all the nurses who kept guarded watch of me in the NICU: though I do not remember you by name, I know each and everyone of you cared greatly about me during that summer and I owe a great deal of gratitude to you.

Last but not least – to my tremendously supportive family.  Where would I be without your love, support, faith and comedic relief.  I was but a shell of the person I am today and I owe it all to you – you never gave up on me and continually encouraged me to strive to get better and persevere.

Somewhere Over The Rainbow

As part of my ongoing quest for positivity, I never stopped believing my life would resume where it had left off prior to my diagnosis.  Even though it was now late August and my peers were in week two of classes, I was determined to get back there with them.  But not only was I determined, I whole-heartedly believed that I would be back at some point to resume my law school career.  For those who know me, this belief, or what some may call “stubbornness”, should come as no surprise as I have always been persistent and one to argue a point even when I know I am wrong.

At my request, a meeting was set up with my parents, the Assistant Dean of the law school and I.  The purpose of the meeting was to inform the dean of my progress and basically let her know how I was doing.  All along, I fully and firmly believed that law school was still a possibility for me and that after I can make some progress, I would be back.  Not so fast.  I walked into a conference room and was unable to say a word when she was talking to me.  “Maybe it is just nerves and I need to relax?” I thought to myself.  Nope.  The entire meeting was full of confused and muttered responses…as well as no responses at all.  On top of my cognitive deficits, the nerves and anxiety of my surroundings left me completely unable to make a positive impact and prove that I had what it took to make a recovery and return to school in pursuit of my dream.

Suffice it to say that it did not take long for the dean to ask to speak to my parents in private for a moment.  I did not have the mental capacity to even process what they could have been speaking about, but I knew that it had the potential to be bad… and it was.  When they came back into the room, the dean broke the news to me that I never expected to hear: based on my deficits and lack of progress, my pursuit of earning my juris doctorate degree was officially over and that I should return home to live a comfortable life.

I wanted to jump up on the table and rattle off the elements of negligence and go into a long-winded spiel reciting my oral argument I gave three months earlier.  I couldn’t though and I watched as my parents’ faces had turned from pessimistically optimistic to completely hopeless and sad.  All that I had worked so hard for over the years was gone – the tumor had robbed me of everything.  The two-hour ride from Rhode Island back to Connecticut was full of tears and sorrow by all of us.

It was déjà vu all over again…

After graduating cum laude from The University of Connecticut in 2006, I sat for the LSAT and applied to five schools.  After rejections to four schools and being waitlisted by UConn for the entire summer before learning on the day classes were to begin that I had been rejected, I felt completely helpless.  One of the schools I applied to was Roger Williams University.  Prior to receiving an acceptance or rejection from the school, I was being inundated with mail from the school regarding financial aid, the pro bono work done there and letters from the Office of Career Development.  Given my low LSAT score, acceptance was a long shot but all of the mail left with an ounce of hope.  The Assistant Dean of Admissions invited me to come up and see the campus, go in for a tour and meet with the career development office and you better believe that I accepted it.  With my mother, the two of us made the drive up to Rhode Island.  On a good day, the drive is about two hours but on that particular day, due to the pouring rain and wind, the drive turned into three.  Figures.   Pachaug Trail - "Welcome to Rhode Island sign" at Beach Pond, Hope Valley, RI

During my meeting with admissions, the dean wanted to discuss my low LSAT score along with my high grades at UConn.  “How do I describe the disparity” he wanted to know.   I couldn’t.  Well, the answer was buried in my brain but nobody knew at that point nor were there any reasons to inquire.  On the drive home, my mother and I both recapped the meeting and tried to find any positives to take home with us, but there were none….except that the rain had stopped and over the highway, a full rainbow had developed.  My mother took this as a sign that though things had not been working out for me, that rainbow was certainly an omen of good things to come.

Unfortunately, a short while later that summer, I received a small envelope from the school and inside was a letter from the Assistant Dean of Admissions notifying me that I had not been accepted for that year but encouraging me not to give up hope.  Well fortunately for me, I did not give up hope and remained determined to master the LSATs.  I spent the year working for a law firm in a variety of roles and then went full-steam ahead with an LSAT preparation course.  My hard work had paid off and I improved my score immensely.  I reapplied to all five of the schools, but the moment I received my acceptance from Roger Williams University, I notified them of my acceptance and could not have been happier.

Back to the present day, here I was, back in the car heading home after a horrible meeting at Roger Williams.  But life is funny like that.  I believe that everything happens for a reason, both good and bad, and while that reason may not be apparent at the current moment, it will become evident at some point in time.  For me, the reason I did not get accepted after meeting with the school on that rainy day and the long drive with my mom was that my acceptance a year later allowed me to enroll with Ashley and find my counterpart…the one who lived this battle with me moment I left her that voicemail notifying her of my diagnosis.

So what’s my point, It’s that you cannot give up.  Keep going, keep searching and keep fighting.  Through it all, you will find your rainbow.