The Lawyer and the Ultra-Terrible Headache

Maybe a brain tumor slows other people down, but not Scott Schwind

Published in 2004 Texas Rising Stars magazine

By Dave Kenney on June 23, 2004


There are plenty of ways to determine just how devoted attorneys are to their jobs. You can keep track of what time they arrive at work in the morning and what time they leave the office in the afternoon (or evening). You can check their billable hours. Or, under certain, very rare circumstances, you can see how long it takes them to return to work after undergoing major brain surgery.

Judged by that last criterion alone, Scott Schwind must really love his job.

Schwind, then an associate with the Houston office of Baker & McKenzie, surprised just about everybody when he showed up for work in October 1999 — just one month after having a lemonsized tumor removed from his head. The angry, 6-inch scar behind his right ear tended to evoke concern among his co-workers, not confidence. “Scott thought that brain surgery should be an outpatient procedure,” jokes his former boss, John Cogan. One evening, when Cogan discovered that Schwind was still at his desk at 9 o’clock, he ordered the young associate to go home. “He was not happy about that, but he went along with me to keep the peace,” Cogan recalls. For his part, Schwind knew all along that he had probably gone back too soon. “I’m a little hard-headed,” he admits. Still, he says, it was “probably the only time a senior partner ever told me to go home early while the partner worked late.”

It’s been four and a half years since Schwind made his premature post-surgical return to work. In that time, his colleagues at Baker & McKenzie have grown accustomed to what they describe as his bottomless well of energy and enthusiasm — a reservoir fed in large part by his experience with brain surgery. “The surgery has had an impact on the way he approaches life and his work,” says John Mauel, a partner at Baker & McKenzie. “He visualizes things in a very positive light, and I think that’s probably partly as a result of that experience.” Scott Arrington, another Baker & McKenzie partner, agrees. “Scott was already a disciplined gogetter kind of guy before the surgery happened,” he says. “This reinforced the attitude that he already had that ‘man, you’ve really got to get everything out of life that you can while you can.’”

An Attorney and a Gentleman

As a teenager in suburban Dallas, William Prescott Mills Schwind imagined he would grow up to become a career military officer — preferably in the Marine Corps. But after the Army and the Marines withdrew their offers for ROTC scholarships (they had somehow failed to notice that Schwind was five-foot-four, two inches short of their scholarship requirements), that dream faded. In 1989, Schwind headed off to Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, one of the last all-male colleges in the nation — a venerable institution dedicated to the sculpting of “good men and good citizens.” While Schwind arrived at Hampden-Sydney with his share of post-adolescent baggage (he was, for example, still struggling to cope with his parents’ recent divorce), he still considered himself a “pretty straight arrow.” Hampden-Sydney, with its emphasis on good citizenship and etiquette, was a good fit. After an unfocused freshman year heavy on football and fraternities, Schwind’s conventional tendencies reasserted themselves. He cracked down on his studies and committed himself to a specific career path. He decided to become a lawyer.

After graduating from Hampden-Sydney in 1993 with a double major in English and history, Schwind returned to his home state and enrolled at the University of Texas Law School. At first, he wasn’t sure what kind of attorney he wanted to be. “Everybody in law school seemed to have a definite idea of what they wanted to do except me,” he recalls. But shortly after his arrival in Austin, he began to realize that his main intellectual interests — especially his fascination with world history — were pointing him in the direction of international law. In the summer of 1994 he took a series of law classes in Mexico and Brazil. After that, he was hooked — not only by the thought of practicing international law, but by practicing in Latin America. Brazil, he thought, was especially appealing. “I was really blown away,” Schwind says of his first two-week stay in São Paulo. “The Brazilian people struck me right off the bat as being wonderful, caring people. There was just a warmth about them that was very inviting and very hospitable.”

Schwind returned to Austin with a new focus. First, he arranged to spend a semester as an exchange student at the University of São Paulo School of Law. (It was a process that required, in Schwind’s words, “a little bit of doing and some divine intervention.”) Then, knowing that his language skills were limited, to say the least, he took an intensive crash course in Portuguese. Finally, he worked out an internship with the law firm Trench, Rossi e Watanabe Advogados, the São Paulo affiliate of his future employer, Baker & McKenzie. The resulting semester in São Paulo was a revelation for Schwind. The class work, he says, was challenging, but the experience he gained as a law clerk in a Brazilian firm was priceless. Upon graduation in 1996, Schwind knew where he wanted to go. “Both my heart and my head were pulling me back to Brazil,” he says. “So the attorneys at Baker & McKenzie’s office in São Paulo were kind enough to let me return to Brazil as an associate. That’s how I ended up going back to Brazil.”

For three years, Schwind honed his skills as an international law attorney, first concentrating on intellectual property law, and then on major-projects development and mergers and acquisitions — an especially challenging and lucrative field after Brazil began privatizing state-owned companies in the mid-1990s. By 1999, he had a decision to make. “I was worried,” he says, “that if I spent too much more time in Brazil, then all I would know about the law was [related to] Brazil, and then I wouldn’t be able to do anything else if I came back to the United States.” Not only that, he and his longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth Smith, wanted to get married and start their marriage in the United States. Schwind began looking for a new job back home.

That’s when the headaches started.

“An Enormous Mass”

“At first I didn’t think anything of it,” Schwind says of those first signs of trouble. “And then the headaches started making me nauseous. I would feel really, really bad — in the mornings especially. I thought they were stress-induced migraines. I thought, I’m getting ready to go back to the United States, getting ready to get married, and I was already looking for a new job in the United States. I thought, shoot, this is all stress. I’m stressed out. All I need is a little bit of time to rest and relax and recover and refocus myself and I’ll be just fine.”

But he wasn’t fine. In the summer of 1999, Schwind moved back to the United States to take a new job with the major-projects practice group of Baker & McKenzie’s Houston office, and still the headaches continued. If anything, they got worse. One day, after attending a friend’s wedding in São Paulo, he started noticing new symptoms. “I was at the Houston office, trying to work,” he recalls. “I tried to get up and get a cup of water, and I had no feeling in the entire right side of my body. I couldn’t enunciate. If I spoke, my voice was very slurred. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t see straight. I knew then that something was very wrong.” That evening, when he called his fiancée, in South Carolina, he was still slurring his words. Elizabeth told him to call 911, but he refused. Then she put her father, who happens to be a heart surgeon, on the phone. He told Schwind in no uncertain terms that he needed to get to an emergency room. Schwind relented and called 911. “I’m sure the dispatcher thought I was drunk,” he says.

After ruling out several potential explanations for his symptoms, including stroke, the physicians at the hospital ordered a CAT scan. The results were undeniable. “There was an enormous mass in my head,” Schwind says. “The doctor wasn’t sure what it was. He knew it was a tumor, but he didn’t know what kind. When he told me that, I wasn’t surprised at all. It was almost a relief to know what was wrong. It’s funny to say that. I probably should have been scared.”

Further tests determined that Schwind had what was called an acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor attached to the auditory canal of his right ear. The tumor had grown so large that it was now putting pressure on his brain stem. It had to be removed. If left alone, the tumor would continue to grow and would eventually kill him, probably in a matter of months. The surgery would be long, complicated and risky. Given the location of the tumor, partial paralysis of the facial muscles was a distinct possibility.

The surgery, performed by Houston neurosurgeon Richard Harper, took 13 hours. It went about as well as anyone could have hoped. Harper managed to remove 99 percent of the tumor. Schwind suffered no paralysis. There was only one lasting illeffect: Schwind is now deaf in his right ear. But as far as the patient was concerned, that was a small price to pay. “I was able to function normally,” he says, “to walk with no limp, to speak normally, to write, read, do everything that I could before the surgery. I couldn’t play rugby anymore because I had a hole in my head, but other than that I came out of it pretty well.”

Daily Gift

Even with his misguided attempt to return to work too early, Scott Schwind’s recovery has been inspiring. His co-workers at Baker & McKenzie marvel at how he’s put such a life-threatening experience behind him. Former colleague Todd Taylor says it’s easy to forget what Schwind went through. “Unless you’re sitting on the wrong side of him at a table, where he can’t hear what you’re saying, you don’t notice he has any issues,” Taylor says. In the years since his surgery, Schwind has earned a reputation as one of the most productive associates (in terms of billable hours) in Baker & McKenzie’s North American major projects group. In January, the firm rewarded him by making him a partner in the Houston office.

Schwind’s personal recovery is a bit harder to get a handle on. His wife (they married seven months after his surgery) insists that she hasn’t noticed much of a change in the man she loves. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s pretty much the same person,” she says. But Schwind isn’t so sure. “Ever since the surgery, I consider each day a gift,” he says. “I think about all the things I’ve done in the last four years, the great people that I’ve met, and all of the wonderful time with Elizabeth, and think about how I might not have experienced any of that.” Nowhere is Schwind’s embrace of life more evident than in his near obsession with physical fitness. Fourteen months after his surgery, Schwind ran his first marathon — the New York City Marathon — and since then he’s run three others. His goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Unfortunately for him, though, he’s now sidelined with tendonitis. “The irony is driving me crazy,” he says. “I recover from a brain tumor and I want to run to celebrate my recovery, and what’s bothering me is not my brain but tendonitis in my knee.” Then, the new Scott Schwind, the one who considers each day a gift, puts the problem in perspective. “Then again,” he says, “tendonitis is probably a better problem to have in the long run.”

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