Unexpected Career Interruption – You Can Come Back Stronger from Autoimmune Encephalitis

Many thanks to Will Earnhart for sharing his inspiring story reprinted below, which first appeared in the September 2017 Alaska Bar Association quarterly newspaper.

As attorneys, many of us have type “A” personalities; always striving to be successful in our careers.  We never take a step back for fear of stopping the momentum.  Almost all of us have imagined taking a hiatus from our chosen career and every once in awhile someone does.  Most of us would likely benefit from a sabbatical, but rarely does this happen as we all feel loyalty to our clients and worry about sacrificing all that we have achieved.  Some of us will take time off from the practice on our own terms; but for many such a break is the result of an unexpected health or family circumstance.  I hope that by sharing my story, I can encourage others who find themselves in a similar situation to start over and perhaps grow an even better practice.

In February 2009, I was a successful private attorney specializing in litigation.  In 15 years of practice, I had progressively advanced my career.  I had my own book of long-standing institutional clients, was fully engaged in firm management, and watched many of the young attorneys I mentored become successful practitioners in their own right. 

Nothing foreshadowed what happened next.  On February 12, 2009, I left work early and attended the “Battle of the Books,” where my daughter (then 9-years-old) was participating with her school team.  I remember speaking with several other parents after the competition and then going to dinner with my family.  I also remember not finishing my dinner, something that typically does not happen.  My recollection of the next three months is like a long dream, one that has very little relation to what actually occurred.

As has been related to me, my behavior over the course of the next several days grew increasingly strange.  I did not go to work, I had trouble understanding the world around me, and I could not tell if my coffee was hot, or our how the mini-blinds worked.  I was taken to the emergency room at Providence Hospital.  Despite having suffered numerous seizures and hallucinations, it still took a number of days to determine that I belonged in the neurological unit. My condition quickly worsened and I was medivacked to Oregon Health Sciences University, where I spent the next two months.  My diagnosis at that point was “encephalitis, unknown origin.”

I have no recollection of the two months I spent in intensive care and the recovery unit at OHSU.  In mid-May 2009, I was treated at the rehabilitation unit at Providence Hospital in Anchorage.  I have partial memories of that time – I could not express myself, had lost 50 pounds, and had to learn how to walk again.  I remember being angry and frustrated about my inability to communicate and lashing out at visitors.

I was released several weeks later and spent the summer in speech and cognitive rehabilitation therapy.  At the end of the summer of 2009, my physicians declared me fit to return to work.  Despite this clearance, I quickly found that I continued to struggle. While by all reports, the minimal work I did during that brief return to the office was competent, I was by no means myself and the skilled practitioner I was prior to my illness seemed lost.

Refusing to accept the new and unimproved version of me, my wife with the assistance of a friend (a former coworker of mine) researched and harangued my doctors until I was eventually accepted at the Mayo Clinic.  After extensive testing, I was diagnosed with NMDA Receptor Antibody Encephalitis.  In response, my medical team immediately placed me on an intensive course of steroid infusions.  As if in an instant, the mental fog that had overtaken me began to lift and I became myself again.

My family survived almost solely due to the strength of my wife Lisa who took care of me and our young children.  We were lucky to have the assistance of family and the support of close friends who helped secure the proper medical assistance.  We also learned that paying the monthly premium for disability insurance was not a waste after all.  The ability of my children to come through this ordeal and thrive is a testament to their own character and my wife’s herculean strength and energy.1

During the summer of 2010, I hit the streets, distributed my resume, and looked for a new position.  Despite a strong resume, I found only a little bit of contract work and some interest from the public sector.  In October 2010, I secured a position as an Assistant Municipal Attorney.  It was a sacrifice to take a 50% pay cut from my previous employment, but I welcomed the opportunity to focus on employment and labor and get away from being a “general litigator.”  I quickly moved into lead counsel in arbitrations, successfully advocated before the Alaska Supreme Court in two appeals, conducted a two-week jury trial, and eventually became lead negotiator on several labor contracts.  I enjoyed my time at the City; my coworkers were a great group of attorneys, and Dennis Wheeler was an exemplary supervisor and colleague.  The work was diverse and always challenging.  But my own professional goals, a desire to prove myself, and a sense of “unfinished business” drew me back to private practice.

Despite my record of success at the City, it took almost a year of sending out resumes before I was able to secure an offer.  The first clear indication that finding a new job would be an uphill battle came early on when I applied for a Superior Court judgeship.  My Bar poll results dropped almost a whole point on average, indicating my peers felt that I was far less qualified in 2012 than I had been in 2002, when I previously applied. But what was really frustrating was the sample of “edited comments” provided by the Council.  Every candidate receives a negative comment (and some of us abrasive litigators expect to have a few detractors). However, the majority of comments about me, both signed and unsigned, questioned my mental capacity or whether I had a substance abuse problem.  The comments did not appear to stem from actual interactions with me during my practice, but rather conjecture and presumptions.  It became very apparent that our legal community is a small one where whispers in the halls can quickly become “truth.”  In addition to the misperceptions of my peers, I also had to face my own insecurities surrounding my diagnosis, which undoubtedly magnified the challenges I faced in rejoining the private legal sector.

After struggling to find my place and overcome the challenges I faced, a year and a half ago, I was asked to join Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot, a well-respected firm I had admired for years.  It has been a long journey, but I now have a thriving employment, labor, and municipal practice in a great Alaskan firm where I work alongside an exceptional group of attorneys.

While there are risks with sharing my story and we Type “A” attorneys certainly try to avoid appearing vulnerable in this highly competitive legal environment, we are all human and, except for a lucky few, we will all have to face the losses and challenges that life inevitably throws our way.  However, it is these challenges and our ability to overcome and learn from them that make us greater, not only in our personal lives, but also in our professional lives.  My name is Will Earnhart, and I am here to say, just in case you need to hear it, “yes, you can come back stronger.”

1At the time I suffered the initial 2009 hospitalization, Susannah Cahalan, a New York Post reporter, also suffered a similar experience and was ultimately diagnosed with the same illness.  Ms. Callahan collected all of her records, interviewed all available witnesses to her fight with NMDA and her efforts to get a proper diagnosis, and wrote “Brain on Fire:  My Month of Madness,” a New York Times bestseller and 2016 movie.  I mention the book because, reportedly, I experienced the same symptoms and strange behavior, and received the same neurological test results and misdiagnoses.  My wife cannot read the book; it comes too close to what she witnessed firsthand.   

William Earnhart practices at Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot.

Correspondence with author by Lynn Chapman