WINDSOR, Ont. — Civil litigator Harvey Strosberg says he “went from powerful to powerless in the blink of a stroke.”
In September 2010, Strosberg, considered one of the country’s leading class action lawyers, had just spoken at last year’s Ontario Bar Association civil litigation award ceremony for the late Bonnie Tough. “Thirty-six hours later, I had a stroke on Oct. 1 at 8 o’clock in the morning,” he says.
Strosberg, who splits his time between Windsor and Toronto, was taken to Toronto Western Hospital. “It was frightening,” he says in a slow and studied voice as he regains full use of his speech and vocabulary. “It was painfully excruciating.”
Then he had another stroke and entered a coma for more than a week.
When he regained consciousness, he was denied food and water.
Because he had lost his ability to speak, he had the added frustration of not even being able to ask for water. “I couldn’t say please get me water. . . . I couldn’t speak, and they wouldn’t give me water.”
The problem was that he was unable to swallow and hospital staff feared water would go into his lungs. “I lost 40 pounds,” he says. “It’s a hell of a way to lose weight. Please don’t do it. It’s not worth it.”
Strosberg was diagnosed with aphasia, the temporary loss of language ability. As a result, he could say only four words: wow, consequences, Paul, and Franklin. He has no idea why he remembered those words or their significance.
Strosberg could walk but couldn’t speak. “God played a terrible trick on me,” he says jokingly. “I was a trial lawyer who could not speak.”
He ended up at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, where he was a patient for a month and immediately began therapy to restore his speech and cognitive skills.
His first piece of news from the outside world was that his licence had been suspended.
It was, in fact, his driver’s licence, he says with a laugh.
The effort to regain his language skills involved starting from the basics, almost as if he was a child learning to speak for the first time.
Therapists would show him pictures of everyday objects like a cup or a toothbrush. “I recognized the toothbrush but I couldn’t say the word,” he says. “I had to learn language over again and it took me a lot of time.”
Some words came back more easily than others, but he had difficulty with verbs. If he was out in public, people might mistake him for someone who had a severe disability because he’d speak so slowly as he tried to remember the words.
His wife Cathy typed up labels for things in the house such as the TV, couch, and wall. “Everything in the condo was labelled,” he says.
Once he got the pronunciation of the words correct, his ability improved. “I could read and then I had to pronounce the words and then I remembered,” he says.
A trial scheduled for April of this year on the Manulife class action was postponed until March 2012. By that time, Strosberg expects to be sufficiently recovered. He’s now back working six hours a day.
Strosberg notes his reading ability was much better than his speech. “I could read but I couldn’t speak,” he says. “I couldn’t get the words together.”
Strosberg still receives therapy four hours a week but is otherwise gearing up for a return to law full time. Last week, he received the OBA’s civil litigation award. On Nov. 22, the Toronto Rehab Foundation is putting
on a benefit in his honour.
The OBA honoured him not just because he’s prominent as a civil litigator but also because of his rich contribution to the profession, says OBA civil litigation section chairman Colin Stevenson.
Besides being past Law Society of Upper Canada treasurer, Strosberg devoted “an enormous amount of time” to revitalizing the lawyers’ insurance program that culminated in LawPRO, according to Stevenson.
The November benefit will include a video presentation about Strosberg’s recovery. Terrence O’Sullivan and Michael Eizenga, both Toronto litigators who have practised with and against Strosberg, are co-chairing the event.
O’Sullivan, who had once also been a patient at the rehabilitation institute for an autoimmune illness, says the event, called Harvey’s Back, will recognize Strosberg’s “terrific recovery” and the centre’s unique therapeutic approach.
He notes many lawyers have gone through its stress recovery program given that they’re in a high-stress occupation and “may be more prone than some other people to these kinds of problems.”
Strosberg says he was overwhelmed by the recognition as well as the multitude of e-mails, letters, and visits from members of the legal profession during his recovery.
He notes that if there are lessons to learn from his illness, one of them is to slow down. All too often, he says, lawyers feel that they have to respond instantly.
“They respond to other lawyers and to their clients too quickly without sitting back and taking your time and thinking about the problem.”
As well, he believes people should have more compassion. “I want to be an example for people who are disabled. For example, if a person is struggling with a word, just say nothing. Just give her or him a chance to get the right word out.”
For his part, O’Sullivan calls Strosberg “iconic” and says he’s someone who has come to “embody the new revolution of class action litigation” since its introduction in Ontario in the early 1990s.
Strosberg, he notes, was the “most responsible person for breathing life into it and taking cases on the plaintiffs’ side and making the legislation work.”
Strosberg’s most famous cases include the hepatitis C mass tort, the YBM Magnex International Inc. class action, and the payday loans litigation.
Currently, his firm is counsel on matters involving Bre-X Minerals Ltd., Air France Flight 358, Vioxx Canada, Ticketmaster, Money Mart, and Menu Foods.