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A debilitating stroke, a remarkable recovery

Harvey Strosberg will return to a Toronto courtroom in March to steer a class-action case for the first time since a devastating stroke on Oct. 1, 2010, forced him to relearn how to speak.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Harvey Strosberg vowed a year ago that he'd be back.

Known in the courtroom as a bulldog, a force to be reckoned with on multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuits, the high-profile Ontario lawyer was silenced by a stroke that took away his ability to speak.

Now, after intense therapy and with his hallmark doggedness, Mr. Strosberg is poised to fight a big case again. In March, he will return to a Toronto courtroom to steer the trial of a class-action suit for the first time since his stroke in October, 2010, having had to learn how to use language all over again.

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"I was a trial lawyer that couldn't speak," said Mr. Strosberg, 67, a senior partner of Sutts Strosberg LLP in Windsor, Ont., who also served as head of the Law Society of Upper Canada in the 1990s.

"I could write my name, but I couldn't write anything else. I couldn't communicate."

He now speaks in a slower, more deliberate way, at times pausing for several seconds to find the right phrase.

Mr. Strosberg's comeback has been the talk of the profession. In September, he was asked to address the ceremonial opening of the province's courts, making a moving speech. Then, at a gala dinner in October, the Ontario Bar Association gave him an award for excellence in civil litigation. And in November, he was the toast of another gala in his honour, chaired by prominent lawyers Terrence O'Sullivan and Michael Eizenga, to raise funds for the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

Close to 500 people, mostly lawyers, came out for the event, said Mr. O'Sullivan, raising $315,000 for the institute and paying tribute to someone he calls a "tenacious bulldog" of a lawyer.

"Most of those people would have been Harvey's opponents," he said. "So I thought it was a great tribute to him."

It was around 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2010, that Mr. Strosberg realized something was wrong.

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"It was a cleaving, like my head was being chopped into bits," Mr. Strosberg said in an interview in his downtown Toronto condominium. "I wanted to get into bed."

His wife Cathy, a retired nurse, asked him his name and his birth date, and he couldn't answer. After undergoing tests in hospital, he says his full-on stroke set in, numbing the right side of his body. He soon regained some of his physical strength, but was left with a vocabulary of just a handful of random words.

After a few weeks at Toronto Western, he was transferred to the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, where doctors and speech therapists would help spur his recovery. It began with song lyrics, which somehow remained unharmed in his stroke-ravaged brain. And it continued with more than a year of intense therapy. It was during this time that Mr. Strosberg gave himself a challenge: Not only did he vow to learn to speak all over again and get back into court – he hoped he could be an example to other stroke victims.

"I said to myself, I'll be back. That's my job," Mr. Strosberg said. "My job was to learn the language all over again."

Soon his condo was covered in sticky notes, labelling every household item, no matter how mundane: Lamp, TV, fork, spoon, fridge, stove. Abstract concepts, such as behind, between, up and down, were more difficult. So were most verbs. Every day, he read a newspaper article, studying and practising, until he understood it. Even a simple sentence could take him five minutes to blurt out.

In addition to the therapy provided by the health system, and supportive family and friends, Mr. Strosberg, whose decades of practising law have made him wealthy, had other help. He says he spent about $5,000 a month in extra therapy, and he still does a session each day with a speech therapist.

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He also rediscovered the pleasure of speaking to his five grandchildren, all of whom are under the age of six.

"They were perfectly content to speak slowly to me because they spoke slowly themselves," he said, adding with a laugh that "they were they only people who were patient with me."

Mark Bayley, the medical director of neuro-rehabilitation programs at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, said about a third of stroke victims suffer some sort of language difficulties. But few recover the way Mr. Strosberg has.

"For him to recover so quickly is really quite remarkable. It's a testament really to his hard work and the intensity of treatment that he had," Dr. Bayley said, adding that some stroke patients without the money for extra treatments but the same determination could still regain their ability to speak, but likely not as quickly.

Mr. Strosberg first dipped his toe back into a courtroom last Aug. 31, making a brief appearance before a judge in Windsor to argue against a motion in a class-action case, and he was granted special permission to videotape the proceedings.

"I won at the end. And it was exhilarating to me. The issues weren't important at all," Mr. Strosberg said.

That experience of arguing a case after his stroke taught him a valuable lesson, he said, now that he speaks more slowly: All lawyers should take their time.

"Many lawyers speak too fast," he said. "They think they have a minute or two minutes, and they race to get the most words in a minute. That's wrong. You have to think about the concept of the judge being persuaded. If you take your time, he'll or she'll get the idea simpler and faster."

His daughter Sharon Strosberg, who like her brother Jay is also a lawyer at her father's firm, was there and says it was an emotional day, capping months of not knowing how just how much of his speech her father could recover: "He kept saying, 'I will be back, I will be back.' And we all started to believe it."

In two months, Mr. Strosberg will face an eight-week trial in a class-action case involving Manulife Financial Corp. and its demutualization.

Mr. Strosberg, bounding around his Spartan Toronto condo explaining his ordeal, stressed that he is indebted to the lawyers for Manulife – Torys LLP's Sheila Block and Wendy Matheson – for agreeing to postpone the trial while he recovered.

He has lost 40 pounds, meditates and naps every day, does yoga, and says he has changed his outlook on life.

"I was so grateful for being alive, I forgave anyone that was being mean to me, or did bad things to me," Mr. Strosberg said. "… And I asked forgiveness for everyone that I did badly to. Then I was free. … I'm the happiest man in the world."

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About the Author
Toronto City Hall Reporter

Jeff Gray is The Globe and Mail’s Toronto City Hall reporter. He has worked at The Globe since 1998. From 2010 to 2016, he was the law reporter in Report on Business, covering Bay Street law firms and white-collar crime. He won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards for investigative journalism in 2010. More

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