Head Above Water

John Morton's life with Parkinson's and in the pool

Published in 2009 Louisiana Super Lawyers — January 2009

John Morton has never been one to back down from a challenge.

In the courtroom, he's known as a crack personal injury lawyer, with more than 26 years' experience at Hunter & Morton in Alexandria, representing clients who've been injured by negligent health care providers, offshore accidents and defective state highways. Out of the office, he's a champion swimmer who qualified for the Olympic trials in 1976, participated in triathlons for 20 years, and coached local high school swimmers with his wife, Kathleen.

But the last couple of years have seen Morton deal with his greatest challenge and experience his greatest triumphs. Two years ago, Morton was training for the Marine Corps Marathon when he made a decision that would change his life. "I woke up one morning and it was too blasted hot to go for a run, so the second of my three daughters, Kim, and I decided to head out on a mountain bike ride instead," he says. While attacking a steep ascent, Morton crashed. He was taken to a hospital and underwent surgery to repair nerve damage to his left hand. Initially, it seemed his recovery was going as smoothly as could be expected. But, soon, Morton began to notice a tremor in the hand. "I was told it was the nerves rehealing, but it persisted," he says.

Eventually, doctors came back with a different diagnosis: Parkinson's disease.

"When you get that diagnosis, it's a moment where you have to do a lot of self-analysis and reflection," Morton says. "You have to decide how much are you going to let this be a limitation." For Morton, the decision was clear: as little as possible. Morton has turned the potential weakness into a professional strength. "I'd like to think it's made me a better lawyer. I have a better appreciation for the problems faced by my clients and a refusal to accept society's limitations," he says. "I can better recognize the challenges they face, from being self-conscious to having real, physical limitations and how to deal with that."

His training as an athlete and a lawyer has helped him gain better control over his mind and body. Morton adopts what he calls a "purpose-driven mentality," in which he clears his mind of clutter and focuses on breaking problems down into their fundamental elements. The skill has always helped him explain complicated medical and engineering cases to juries and to work around the weariness and pain of sport to reach a goal. Today, it also helps him work around the tremor in his hand. In fact, Morton is doing so well that he's even become a "very capable Masters swimmer" again. Parkinson's, and its effect on his biking ability, convinced him to spend more time with the sport he'd first loved. In 2008, he had a top-10 finish at the U.S. Masters National Championships. "I'd like to think I'm the fastest Parkinson's Masters swimmer in the country," he says.

But Morton emphasizes that his personal and professional accomplishments would be unattainable without his extensive support network, which includes his wife of 27 years, Kathleen; three daughters (Allison, Kim and Natalie); his law partner of 26 years, Phil Hunter; his doctors in Houston; his office staff; his swim training buddy, Kevin Switzer; numerous friends; and his Knights of Columbus Council 8029. "None of my personal or professional achievements would have been possible without their collective help, assistance, inspiration and—at times—well-deserved criticism," he says.

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