The goal of this column is to enlighten our readers about the wide variety of physical and cognitive challenges that their colleagues have overcome to further their careers. It is our hope that this series assists in educating our readers about the many contributions and talents that attorneys with disabilities bring to the profession.
Darryl Weiss will never give up. Not after four strokes, three seizures, and two life-saving brain surgeries. Not after losing his job and his driver’s license. Not even after being told by his doctor that if he continues fencing, he may not survive the experience. The former general counsel and secretary for Telgian Corporation in San Diego, California, presses on despite these challenges.
“How do you know you can’t do it, until you try?” he says.
A Division I basketball player in college during the 1970s, Weiss began fencing in 1997 after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament for the second time in three years playing basketball. Unlike basketball, fencing doesn’t require lateral movement and in time Weiss became a serious fencer, competing in tournaments nationwide. The sport is a perfect match for his competitive nature, and the split-second decisions that it requires also hone his ability to think on his feet, an important skill for an attorney.
This athletic cross-over move proved to be only a minor test of Weiss’ resilience. His next major challenge would come eight years later.
“I woke up and was a bit off balance,” he recalls. “My wife and I were in Minnesota for Thanksgiving, and we went shopping and I was a bit dizzy.” On the plane ride back to California, his condition worsened. So after landing, they went straight to the hospital where they learned he was having a stroke, caused by a bleedout from an aneurysm, a swelling and weakening of the basilar artery (main artery in the brain). He was placed in intensive care, and eventually treated at the Barrow Neurological Institute, where he underwent brain surgery, and stents were inserted into his damaged artery.
Following a regimen of speech and physical therapy, in which he had to relearn how to walk and speak again, and encouraged by a huge support network, Weiss was back to work and fencing within five weeks. He credits his quick recovery, in part, to practicing his fencing footwork during rehab.
In February 2007, however, a visit to the doctor revealed the development of another aneurysm. Live-saving surgery—a craniotomy and bypass of the artery, which reversed the direction of blood flow in the brain—was necessary. The first brain surgery had gone smoothly, but this time things were rocky—Weiss was in intensive care for three weeks, had a seizure and caught pneumonia. The subsequent recovery took much longer.
Eventually, Weiss went back to work and continued fencing. This time, however, he was having mind-body connection problems; sometimes when he wanted to move his legs, they would not. Nonetheless he qualified for that summer’s U.S. Fencing Association’s Summer National Championships. “I credit being on my feet and on the ‘right side of the grass’ to much of the support offered by my fencing friends,” he said at that time.
Weiss’s experiences radically changed his perspective not only about life but about being disabled. “I always took my health and the people around me for granted. I thought the task of climbing stairs to be so easy. Now, if a driveway has a slight incline, I can fall. I look everywhere for how long a walk I face.”
Prior to his illness, he admits that like many other attorneys, he had considered the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and associated laws to be a nuisance. “Until I needed them,” he says. “The things we have done to the disabled are terrible. And don’t get me started about airplanes. Imagine if you’re in a wheelchair, how do you go to the bathroom in an airplane?”
Since the brain surgeries, Weiss has had three seizures, and two more strokes. These episodes led to the suspension of his driving privileges and motivated Telgian Corporation to place him on disability a year ago. Today, he can only walk short distances, but he has not given up fencing. Instead, he has moved on to wheelchair fencing.
The sport, he explains, was introduced in England in 1953 by Sir Ludwig Guttmann in order to help wounded war veterans regain strength and coordination. It is similar to conventional fencing, so far as the speed at which one must react, and has allowed many disabled athletes like Weiss to remain active competitors.
“In my first chair tournament,” Weiss says, “I got set and when the ref gave the command to fence I couldn’t believe how fast I was touched.”
Despite his many setbacks Weiss keeps busy, doing volunteer work for the Brain Injury Foundation, the Grand Canyon State Fencing Foundation (one of the three recognized wheelchair fencing training centers in America), and serving as a mentor for the American Bar Association’s disabled law student program, among other organizations. He is currently on the San Diego Zoological Society’s ACCESS committee, which is writing their ADA manual.
“Fortunately, most of the work can be done from home, and I have a computer and scanner,” he says. “I have to keep my mind engaged. Although I might be one person, I want to make some sort of difference and give back. I’m most happy when I’m helping people.”
Weiss also spends time babysitting his four-year-old twin grandsons and participating in various professional events such as the Kennedy Center’s Leadership Exchange in the Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference and the annual Association of Corporate Counsel conference.
“It is frustrating that often people assume that because you have a disability— any disability—that you are automatically disqualified to accomplish anything,” he asserts. “I may walk funny, and talk funny, and drool, but my mind still works as well as ever. Just give us a chance without any assumptions and our true talents will shine through.”
Weiss admits his condition is not improving. He has trouble swallowing, and his mind and body are not always on the same page. He also has trouble reading so it takes a little bit longer to accomplish some tasks. His most recent check-up showed a blockage in the area where he had his bypass, and his aneurysms are worsening. “The diagnosis is I will most likely keep having strokes and plateau a little lower each time until I don’t survive,” he says. Still, he has not lost hope.
“I have been seizure free for a year.” He says his doctors call him the poster child for recovery, and his current goal is to compete in the Paralympics in 2012. Though he can’t go regularly to a training facility to practice with other competitors because of the loss of his driving license, he makes daily practice forays against a wallboard at home to keep in shape.
“You have to stop feeling sorry for yourself,” he says, noting that things could always be worse. “I could have locked-in syndrome, where all you can do is open and close your eyes. I tell all disabled persons, ‘Never give up!’” DB