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William C. Altreuter
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Tuesday, January 27, 2004

When the case came into the office a while back, I knew it was going to be trouble. A young doctor had slipped and fallen at my client's hotel, seriously injuring his knee. There looked like there would be liability problems, the injury was bad, and I knew the firm representing him to be pugnacious and politically well connected.

Even so, I felt a little guilty when the plaintiff's lawyer called me a month or so into it to tell me that his client had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. My first thought was that this development really simplified the defense of the lawsuit, and I was ashamed, and a bit concerned for the state of my immortal soul because this was my initial response. I recall driving back from the court conference where we set up an expedited discovery schedule thinking, "It'll be like deposing a ghost," and shuddering. When I deposed him though, he was nothing like a ghost. He was a young man in agony, terrified because his training and experience told him exactly what was happening to him, and exactly what was going to happen. He held on, and hung tough for the whole time I was questioning him, and it gradually became clear that this stupid lawsuit had provided him with a crucial distraction during the time that he first realized that he was sick, then realized how sick he was going to be.

From time to time he lapsed into that sort of automatic doctor way of talking that physicians use when they want to avoid giving a direct answer to a direct question. At one point I asked him, "How long..." and he interjected, "Do I have left? That's the million dollar question in oncology, and the truth is, we don't know." I had wanted to ask him something all together different, but I let it go-- it was a moment for him to savor his professionalism and his detatchment, and there weren't going to be to many of those left.

I've deposed terminal patients before, and in my darker moments have even been known to think that we are all terminal. That's what Kurt Vonnegut would say, and I've been know to say it, too. This was different, and when I walked out of the hospital where I'd questioned him I felt horrible-- I'd witnessed genuine, horrible suffering, and been moved by it, but I'd also completely compartmentalized that part of me, and taken a deposition that took a bad case for my client, and made it defensible. It's what I do, of course, but it is not always laid out there quite so coldly.

"Courage" is a word that gets used a lot in situations where someone is dying, but I'm not so sure there is anything particularly courageous about dying. When his lawyer called me today to tell me that he had died, I didn't think of the poor guy as having been particularly brave, but I give him credit for the dignity he showed, and I hope it went easily for him.

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