|Oregon State Bar Bulletin MAY 2011|
In early 2010, Baker City lawyer Lise Yervasi received life-altering news: She was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease.
ALS is a progressive, fatal neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord, eventually leaving all voluntary muscles paralyzed. Average life expectancy after diagnosis is two to five years. Thus, Yervasi, who is justice of the peace in Baker County, and her family began planning for living within that time frame.
One of the goals she set was to compete in the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London, in para-equestrian dressage, both for her own morale as well as to raise awareness of ALS. She hopes to be one of 200 athletes to compete for six gold medals in equestrian, a sport in which athletes with a disability have long taken part, originally as a means of rehabilitation and recreation.
Equestrian events first appeared on the Paralympic program at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and have been held at every Olympics since Atlanta in 1996. (“Para” refers to parallel, because the Paralympics are held immediately following the regular Olympic Games at the same location, she explains.) The Paralympics are specifically for competitors who have various types of disabilities.
Horses always have been part of Yervasi’s life. She began riding at age 3, and delivered newspapers on horseback while growing up in Colorado. As a teenager, she competed in equestrian and qualified for an international event in hopes of going to the Olympics.
The hurdles for aspiring Paralympic equestrian competitors are many. First, contestants must raise their own money through sponsorships and donations to cover the costs, including what she estimates is at least $25,000 just to have their horse shipped to the Olympic site. Second, they must have access to a trained horse, which can be hard to obtain, not to mention expensive. In addition, riders first must go through qualifying events and be judged to be competitive at the international level. These requirements are compounded by the fact that individuals trying for the Paralympics usually work full time and ride only in their spare time, as Yervasi does.
A Silver Lining
Earlier this year, Yervasi found the solution for one of those obstacles when she “was given a very special international horse by an Australian retired Olympic judge to help me in my quest.” He is a 12-year-old gelding named Brendan Braveheart, a Grand Prix horse, meaning one that has competed at the highest levels.
But a few months before that, right before Christmas, Yervasi received a gift that was as life-changing as her ALS diagnosis: Her Portland neurologist determined that she did not have ALS after all, but instead has an unusual form of autoimmune motor neuron disease.
ALS is a type of motor neuron disease, but the kind of AMD she has is not deadly. “With immunotherapy, we were able to stop the quick decline,” she says. Her doctor sent her to the Mayo Clinic for confirmation of the diagnosis, which she obtained. “This is a chronic condition. We’re hoping with immunotherapy, it will not progress.” However, the nerve damage that already has taken place is permanent.
“If I go anywhere very far, I use a power wheelchair,” she says. That includes getting around her Baker County ranch, where she and her husband, Damien R. Yervasi, a lawyer she met while both were at Lewis & Clark Law School, live with their three children they adopted from Haiti.
When Lise Yervasi was growing up near the Wyoming-Colorado border, she and her parents and sisters all rode horses, and sometimes went on camping trips to a mountain cabin. After she and her husband moved to Eastern Oregon, the family often went packing with their horses in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. “Now, because of my disability, it’s much more difficult for me to do,” says Yervasi. Instead, she rides horses on their ranch, an activity that primarily uses core muscles and therefore is therapeutic.
After her diagnosis changed, she was able to make more long-range plans. But her original aim to compete in next year’s Paralympics did not change.
“I somehow got a reprieve, and that just gives me a longer time to raise awareness for ALS. And one way to try to do it is the Olympic thing,” she says. “Sometimes you pick (what you think are) great ideas, and they turn out not so great; but sometimes everything just kind of starts falling into place, and you think, ‘Maybe this is what I am supposed to do.’ Having someone give you a Grand Prix horse is like winning the lottery.”
Becoming an Attorney
Yervasi chose law as a profession because she believed it was a good way to help people in a direct way. The helping professions and public service ran in her family, she says.
She was born in Ohio, but six months afterward her family moved to Colorado, where her parents were educators with Colorado State University. During her school years, they lived for a time in Amherst, Mass., where her father worked as a college administrator. She attended high school there with a mostly “extremely affluent” group of students, “but a section of the folks were not as fortunate. Seeing that disparity just naturally creates some of that social consciousness.”
After the family returned to the West, Yervasi considered several careers while at the University of Wyoming. At one point she had thought of being a veterinarian, but she ended up majoring in sociology and contemplating becoming a sociology professor. However, she took the LSAT and was accepted to law school at the university, where during her first year of law school she also worked as a graduate assistant in sociology — a dual path “I wouldn’t recommend,” she jokes.
She decided that being a lawyer would better fit her desire to use her skills to help those who were less fortunate. She then completed law school at Lewis & Clark.
Initially Yervasi worked at St. Andrew Legal Clinic, then took a job with a Portland law firm. On the way to their honeymoon, she and her husband passed through Baker City. They decided it would be an ideal place to settle, and both landed jobs with law firms in the area. Lise Yervasi handled divorce, child and family law, as well as court mediation for custody and child dependency.
“I didn’t make a lot of money,” she admits. “I used my own version of the St. Andrew’s sliding fee scale. Sometimes it (resulted in) unintentional pro bono work. But I felt confident I made a difference in some children’s lives. Once in a while I get an email from one. It’s nice and kind of unexpected.”
Jane Angus, a retired lawyer and former assistant disciplinary counsel with the Oregon State Bar, “has been my mentor through thick and thin throughout my career,” says Yervasi, who was matched with Angus in 1993 through the Multnomah Bar Association’s mentorship program. Coincidentally, the two both had a horse background and love for riding, which immediately gave them something in common besides sharing the same profession.
Angus calls being Yervasi’s mentor “a gift to me. She’s a very good lawyer and very bright. She cares about what she does, and what she does she does well.” Moreover, Yervasi has been inspirational in facing her medical challenges with great courage, Angus says. “She’s a very special person and has a very special family. She deserves only the best to happen to her.”
Yervasi has continued in her job as justice of the peace, where she presides over all sorts of matters including criminal cases, and only the occasional marriage. She says her disease does not result in cognitive problems but, along with various other physical effects, causes her to speak more slowly.
Working is “harder at the end of the day than at the beginning,” she notes. “In general, I schedule in-court stuff in the morning, when my speech is best and I’m at my strongest.”
Her determination to go for the Paralympics is tempered by the financial barriers. In order to represent the United States, “other people have to be interested” in seeing you go, she says. “It really takes a community.” She estimates the total cost for her to compete with Brendan Braveheart would run $50,000.
But Yervasi knows that raising more awareness of neurological diseases is essential if substantial progress is ever going to be made. More funding is imperative to bring that about. In the case of ALS, “Your mind remains intact, you lose all voluntary muscles,” she says. “That’s cruel and unusual punishment, by my definition. That needs to change.”
Editors’ note: To help Lise Yervasi make it to the 2012 Summer Paralympics, tax-deductible donations can be made to the United States Para-Equestrian Association, designating that they be for Lise Yervasi. The address is USPEA, 3940 Verde Vista Drive, Thousand Oaks, CA. 91360.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2011 Cliff Collins