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Back on His Feet

After risky surgery for a brain tumor, maritime lawyer David Sharpe dives into recovery

Published in 2019 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine

It’s still tough for David Sharpe to look back on 2002. 

That May, his mother-in-law died suddenly of a heart attack. A few months later, his mother lost her battle with cancer. And not long after, Sharpe discovered a health crisis of his own: A doctor informed him that the hearing loss he’d been experiencing was being caused by a brain tumor. “It was kind of like going in to get your oil changed and finding out your car has to be totaled because your engine is bad,” says the maritime attorney, husband and father of three.

A partner at the New Orleans firm Lugenbuhl, Wheaton, Peck, Rankin & Hubbard, where he has practiced for 23 years, Sharpe was just hitting his stride professionally when the diagnosis of acoustic neuroma stopped him in his tracks. Though the doctor said the tumor was likely benign, treatment options were fraught with risk.

Surgically removing the tumor from where it was growing, on the bundle of nerves that lie between the middle ear and the brain, would be a delicate procedure, and there was a chance that Sharpe would not survive it. His doctor told him that even a successful removal of the tumor could result in permanent hearing loss, partial facial paralysis or balance problems that could impair his ability to walk. 

There was the option to wait and see if the tumor would become more troublesome. Of course, that carried the risk that the mass would grow and pose a threat to his life. He decided to have surgery.

Today, he keeps at his desk a photo of the curving nine-inch incision his surgeon made behind his right ear. It reminds him how lucky he is to be alive and to have prevailed over the fears that plagued him leading up to the surgery.

“Maritime is a 24/7 industry, and I worried about whether I would be able to be a full-time practitioner anymore,” he recalls. “Would I be able to go to court, hear witnesses and ask questions, or would the pain wallop me in the middle of a trial?” 

Sharpe did permanently lose hearing in his right ear as a result of the surgery, and for a time he was unable to walk due to severe vertigo. But through intense physical and occupational therapy and eye exercises, he gradually regained his balance. In a matter of months, he was not only walking but driving. 

“Balance really is not a problem anymore, except when I get a head cold,” he says.

Occasionally he also has bouts with chronic fatigue, and severe headaches that he says force him “to get horizontal” until the pain subsides. But he’s been able to fully resume his admiralty law practice and part-time teaching at his alma mater, Tulane University Law School.

Much of Sharpe’s work focuses on designing contracts that manage and mitigate risk for his clients—typically providers of tugs, towboats and deep-water vessels that serve the shipping and offshore oil industries. Sharpe’s father did a lot of the same work as a full-time professor of maritime law in Washington, D.C. 

At age 55, he continues to enjoy a life that includes frequent gatherings with family, and some outdoor activities that are unexpected for a person who has undergone surgery involving the inner ear and brain. 

A self-described naturalist who is fascinated with the ocean, Sharpe is grateful that he has been able to continue deep-sea diving. “It’s a real joy to be face-to-face with the underwater creatures,” he says. “And when you’re down there, you don’t have to worry about hearing.”

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