Defeating Public Enemy No. 1
John Boundas wins the most important fight of his life
Published in 2009 Texas Rising Stars magazine
on March 13, 2009
Updated on June 11, 2009
Life can change in an instant. John Boundas knows that all too well. One day he’s arguing to a jury in a major fen-phen case, and the next he’s in an ambulance, headed for heart surgery. At age 35.
He’d known something was wrong for months. He hadn’t been sleeping well, was losing weight, breathing heavy and feeling strange. But like a typical guy, he says, he didn’t bother to check it out. “It was, I think, my third straight trial in a row in Philadelphia, and I’d barely been home the whole time; we were just back to back. So I thought, ‘Well, this is what stress is like,'” Boundas says. “At the time I was 35, healthy, and the last thing I ever thought was that I would be sick.”
A nurse/paralegal working on the case finally convinced Boundas to see a doctor, after watching him walk up a flight of stairs and have to stop midway. Two days later, Boundas was in surgery. The doctor had discovered a huge mass in his chest, which they assumed was cancer. It was.
When Boundas woke up in the ICU after surgery, he was clouded by drugs—and still in shock from the whirlwind of events. He was more than 1,000 miles from his Houston home, arguing one of the biggest cases of his career. What was his first thought? The University of Michigan, his alma mater, was playing Michigan State in football—and he needed to see the game.
The University of Michigan pulled off a win that fall day in 2004, battling back from 17 points down with five minutes left. Boundas got to pull off his own comeback: fighting his way into remission seven months after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It wasn’t an easy path. There were regular chemo sessions that left him barely able to leave the couch, long absences from work and a period of daily radiation treatments.
“It’s one of those things: You wish it never happened, but then again if someone came up to you and said, ‘Well, I can take all that away,’ you’d say no. It certainly changed a lot of things,” says Boundas. “You realize, number one, that the world goes along without you. And that you can only control so much of it.”
Boundas wasn’t used to sitting back and watching the world go by. The native Chicagoan had been on the fast track for years. He graduated first in his law school class at The University of Iowa and interned at the Department of Justice, where he was recognized for “outstanding” work. He earned the second-highest bar exam score in Texas in 1995, then clerked for a federal judge in Chicago. He built up a career in Houston arguing everything from personal injury suits to pro bono civil rights cases.
It would still be a stretch to say that Boundas, now 39 and a name partner at Williams Kherkher Hart Boundas, has slowed down. He’s certainly not sitting poolside sipping gin-and-tonics. He’s kept busy in recent years heading up his firm’s litigation against Merck over the prescription drug Vioxx, which wrapped up in 2007 when Merck agreed to pay $4.85 billion to settle thousands of cases around the country. And while he may not work less now, he does have a different perspective. “I’ve learned that at a certain point it’s out of your hands. You’ve made the best argument you can, you’ve argued till you’re blue in the face to the judge,” he says. “But at the end of it, you realize you’re only part of the process. That’s tough to deal with, but you have to just let it go.”
The cancer forced Boundas to let go of a lot of things, but it had one last lesson to teach him as he looked forward to life without it. And that was to let go of the idea that making it through cancer would mean his life would be dramatically transformed in a Hollywood moment. “I had an illusion that when I was done I would never have any problems ever again because I wouldn’t worry about anything, and that’s just not reality,” he says. “All you can hope is that you stop a lot more frequently than you did and say, ‘You know what, this just isn’t a big deal.’
“You realize everyone has problems in life,” he adds. “You deal with it, you move on, and you hope you learn something.”