Note: Blog post subject matter is discussed in more detail on the Athalonz Podcast.
I grew up wanting to be a professional baseball player. That’s all that mattered to me. I played, read, and dreamt about baseball. I was pretty good too. When I was a senior in high school, I was invited to a closed try-out with the Chicago White Sox. As the day progressed, other players were being sent home, but not me. I was thinking, “this is it, I’m going to get signed”.
At the end of the day, however, the scout I was working with told me I was so much better off going to college than into the minor leagues. I responded that I didn’t want to go to college, I wanted to go to the minors. He replied, “I’m not giving you that option”. Up until that moment, I had no intention of going to college. But, to continue to pursue my dream, I decided to go to college.
I enrolled in the local junior college, despite having partial scholarships to two D-II schools and one to a D-I school. At the time, I didn’t know the difference between junior college, a four-year university, or the different divisions for sports. To me, it was all just college. So, I picked junior college, because that’s what I could afford as a 17 years old kid.
Ok, now that I was going to college, what to study? I was good at math and science and I was working part-time as a draftsman drawing schematics of battery chargers for battery backup systems for nuclear power plants. I kind of wanted to know how the battery chargers worked, so I decided to study electrical engineering. That was August, 1979.
In high school, I was a B- student. I didn’t apply myself. I never took a book home. If I couldn’t get the work done in class or in study hall, I didn’t do it. And, I never studied for tests. In college, something clicked in me. I started to study and apply myself. I was getting A’s in advance mathematic classes and in pre-engineering classes.
I didn’t do near as well in baseball. Four games into my freshman season, I injured my back and missed the rest of the season. I didn’t know at the time, but I herniated three discs in my lower back. In my sophomore season, I injured my pitching shoulder and missed the remainder of the season. At 19, I was done with baseball and my dream of being a professional was over. It took about 10 years to come to grips with that loss.
Between my freshman and sophomore years, my wife and I got married. She was one week past her 18thbirthday and I was 18 years and 10 months old. I am proud to say that we’re still married today.
After my sophomore year at junior college, I transferred to Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) to finish my electrical engineering degree, which was going to take three years. The main campus for IIT was on the south side of Chicago surrounded, at the time, by some pretty rough neighborhoods. For a kid from a small town and having only been in the city a few times, it was a big adjustment.
While going to IIT, I worked about 20 hour per week, taking 4 or 5 electrical engineering classes per semester, and commuting 60 miles one way. I was still working at my high school job drawing schematics of battery charges in my home town, which was 60 miles from IIT. In retrospect, my wife and I should have moved into the city and found jobs there to make life a bit easier, but we never thought of it and no one ever suggested it.
In my last semester at IIT, I was taking 5 senior level engineering classes. The end was in sight. Four weeks into the semester, my oldest daughter, Amy, was born. Two days later, my wife and I were told that she had a severe heart condition and need to be transported to Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. We were numb.
Amy spent the first five weeks of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit at the Children’s Memorial Hospital. To make things even more challenging, the day Amy was born, I was to start a new job; an electrical engineering job. I missed the first week of my new job and was told that if didn’t show up the following week, they would rescind the job offer. So, I started my new job with my new-born daughter fighting for her life.
I spent the next four weeks going back and forth between the hospital and my new job. My wife and I took turns sleeping in the chair next to Amy’s hospital station. We found out that Amy had aortic stenosis and holes in her heart, which would require open heart surgery. Today, the surgery could be done right away, but, in 1984, they didn’t have surgical equipment small enough to operate on a new born baby’s heart. The surgery was schedule 8 months out.
In addition to her heart issues, Amy had severe gastral reflux. Basically, she couldn’t keep her formula down and threw up almost every meal. She was losing weight, spiking fevers, and so weak from the heart issues. It was awful wondering if our baby was going to die. It took the doctors five weeks to figure out a pharmaceutical regiment to stabilize Amy so we could take her home. She was on six different medications that needed to be administered around the clock and she had a nasal feeding tube through which we slowly pumped food into her.
When we brought Amy home, we couldn’t afford any professional help and our families didn’t help us (that’s stories for other blogs). It was my wife and me, at 21 and 22 years old, tending to our critical ill child. Between the feedings and the medications, Amy needed something about every hour of every day. It was exhausting and very stressful. As part of her care, we had to replace her nasal feeding tube several times a day and monitor the color of her hands and feet.
If her hands or feet looked a little blueish, we had to immediately take her to Children’s Memorial Hospital. She would be admitted for a few days so the doctors could adjust her medication. We did this four times between the time she was born and her heart surgery. I held my breath every time the phone rang at work, hoping it wasn’t for me. Four times its was and off I’d rush to get Amy to the hospital.
With Amy home, I resumed my class load. When I first resumed my classes, everyone of my professors told me to drop their class; there was no way I could make up the five weeks I missed. It was my last semester, I had just taken a new job, and my pay would go from $19K per year to $27K per year once I graduated. I conceived them to let me try.
For one of my classes, the mid-term exam was just five days away and the professor said he would not grant me an extension. I had not studied at all for this class. Between work and caring for Amy, I studied for the exam. I don’t even remember the name of the class; I do remember getting the second highest grade on the exam though.
I finished the semester. Honestly, I can’t tell you how I did it. It was all a blur. I was getting less than four hours of sleep per night. Now all I had to do was get my report card, show it to my employer, and I would get a nice raise. When my report card came, I had two B’s, two C’s, and one incomplete. What the hell, what else can go wrong. I wish I were making this up, but it’s true.
I called the professor the next day; she was out of the country and would not be back for two months. Her staff told me that my exam must have gotten lost, they did not have it. The professor did remember that I was there and that I handed in my exam. So, after she returned, I had to take an oral exam. I ended up getting a B in the class, I finally finished my BSEE, and I got my raise.
The raise, however, was nowhere near enough extra money to cover all of Amy’s medical expenses, even with medical insurance. Even after Amy’s successful open-heart surgery, we were overwhelmed with medical expenses and on-going medical care expenses. We were robbing Peter to pay Paul. There were countless times during the years following Amy’s surgery that we ran out of grocery money and I would skip lunches so I had enough money to put gas in the car so I could get to work.
Around Amy’s third birthday, we were sued by the hospital for outstanding medical bills. We didn’t now at the time, but each time Amy went to the hospital, they opened a new account. So, we had six accounts with the hospital. The oldest being the biggest from her 5 week stay right after her birth. We did make some payments to the hospital over the years; $10 to $20 every month or so. The hospital applied all of the payments to the newest accounts. So, it looked like we had not made a payment on five accounts in three years.
I began calling around to find an attorney to represent us. They all wanted at least a $5,000 retainer to get started to which I replied, “If I had that kind of money, I would just pay the hospital”. I didn’t deny that I owed it, I just didn’t have the means to pay it.
A friend of mine suggested that I could represent myself. My first thought was, “No, you have to be smart to be an attorney.” But, I had no choice, so I decided to represent myself. This was in 1987, before the Internet. The nearest law library was in Chicago so, for a month, I traveled to Chicago every night to study the law. I prepared and filed my answer.
At the first hearing, the attorney for the hospital was painting me to be a deadbeat. Now that I have 30 years of legal experience, the attorney for the hospital did a terrible job. I wasn't a deadbeat, I was a broke engineer with a family that included a critically ill child. Fortunately, the judge wasn’t buying the attorney’s argument and said, “Let’s go into my chambers and see if we can’t work this out.” I followed the judge into his chambers. As soon as we sat down, the attorney for the hospital started in again. The judge waived him off to be quiet, took his chair, and faced me directly.
He asks how I was doing, how Amy was doing, how my job was going, and how the rest of the family was doing. I answered him. The judge then asks what could I afford. I had my spreadsheet with me, which showed that we only had $20 a month to spare. The judge said, “ok, this is what we’re going to do. You’re going to pay the hospital $20 a month for the next three years and your debt will be paid in full.” We owed over $40,000. I’ll never forget this moment.
The attorney for the hospital jumped up and said that was unacceptable. The judge, without even looking at the attorney, claps his hands and said, “good, we have a deal.” We went back into the courtroom and I started to leave when the judge told me to hold on, we needed enter the agreement. When I got home, I told my wife that I wanted to go to law school.
I was still pretty naïve and wondered what one could do with an engineering degree and a law degree. I researched it and learned about patents and becoming a patent attorney. So, I decided I was going to become a patent attorney and, a year after the hearing, I started law school.
I am the CEO and Founder of Athalonz, LLC., I am a founding partner of the patent boutique law firm of Garlick & Markison, I am a survivor of child abuse, and I am an inventor on over 300 patents.
Athalonz is a technology company based on Mesa, AZ. It develops and sells athletic footwear, which incorporates its patented technology that leverages the laws of physics to improve athletic performance. Website: athalonz.com
Garlick & Markison is a patent law boutique firm that assists clients in building a patent business within their business using proprietary tools and techniques. Website: texaspatents.com
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