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Thomas W. Werner

Life Lessons Learned Along the Way: Keeping My Ear to the Ground


By Thomas W. Werner

We continue our series of personal, impactful stories that have shaped how we practice law.

A lifetime of chronic ear infections, or a lifetime of tinnitus and moderate hearing loss? My parents had no reason to know that these were the two options between which they were choosing for me when they signed me (then three years old) up for a double myringotomy, commonly called an ear tube surgery.

During a myringotomy, an ear surgeon places tiny, hollow tubes into eardrums to promote drainage and prevent the buildup of fluids in the ear, fluids that can cause undue middle-ear pressure and chronic ear infections. With me having suffered through countless of these ear infections from birth to age three, my parents (who, I’ll readily admit, were suffering through my painful ear episodes far more than I was) decided that I was a strong candidate for myringotomy in both of my ears. So, at age three, I found myself in the Mecosta County (Michigan) General Hospital clad in the traditional thin, backless surgical gown, waiting to be anesthetized.

Given my young age at the time, I remember no pain, no suffering, no immediate effects whatsoever from the surgery. In fact, I remember only two things from that day. First, I remember being scared. I wasn’t scared of the surgery, of which my too-young mind appreciated nothing. Instead, I was scared of having to take off my clothes and leave them behind – and scared of having no idea if my clothes would still be there whenever I came back for them. Second, I remember waking up post-surgery and receiving the most delicious grape popsicle I’ve ever eaten.

That’s not to say, however, that my double myringotomy didn’t have strong consequences that have impacted the rest of my life. It was far from an inconsequential surgery, and its effects (mild hearing loss in my right ear, moderate hearing loss in my left ear, and constant tinnitus in both ears) have resonated for decades.

With these constant symptoms from my double myringotomy, you might think that I rue my parents’ decision that I should undergo the procedure. But I don’t. For I also recognize the benefits that these staunch deficits have bestowed on me. Chief among these benefits: (1) the routine innate habit of paying close attention to words; and (2) quick critical analysis of those words. Since my double myringotomy at age three, I’ve struggled to pick up many words spoken to me. But I’ve thus far retained the ability to pick up at least some of those words. Through decades of hard work, I’ve learned to pay close attention to the words that I have heard and then to deduce by application of critical reasoning skills what the words were that I missed, and even what other words should have been spoken, but were not. Since age three, I’ve been constantly honing these two tandem skills, which have become even more than second nature to me – these skills have become my first nature.

This turning of perceived weaknesses (hearing loss and tinnitus) into clear strengths has been of great benefit to my legal career. For example, I recently harnessed these skills in once again arguing before the Michigan Supreme Court. This most recent argument related to a Plaintiff’s claims that although his Complaint under Michigan’s Whistleblower Protection Act had been disposed by an earlier appellate court ruling, he could still maintain claims under Michigan public policy. As I sat and listened to the Plaintiff’s counsel argue that these public policy claims were not preempted by statute, while my ears were picking up most of her words, my mind was actively and quickly searching for the real meaning behind them, which was apparent not only in the words that I was able to hear, but also in those I was not able to hear, including several words that remained unsaid at all. As I continued to listen, picking up as many words as I could, I also revamped my pre-drafted argument outline to stress the importance of all of these words, including those words that were never said at all.

While I await a decision by the Court, I remain confident that my own words, aided as they were by my paying close attention and applying critical reasoning skills, were strong.

Our second article this month, David M. Saperstein discusses how lawyers who get blamed for the inactions of another attorney have an opportunity to correct the record.