In the summer of 1995, at Gerry Spence's trial lawyer college in Wyoming, Dax Cowart found his way.
He had long admired Spence, a high-profile attorney who often is described as "the John Wayne of the courtroom." During the month-long gathering at his ranch about an hour's drive from Jackson Hole, Spence put about 50 lawyers through mock trials and demonstrations of trial techniques. Dax soaked up his philosophy: communicate with your client and jury by being yourself.
One morning at breakfast, Dax found himself sitting next to Bob Hilliard, a 36-year-old lawyer from Corpus Christi. Soon the two men were deep in conversation, exchanging the kind of heartfelt thoughts that usually surface after years of friendship.
Bob could see that something terrible had happened to Dax, but he did not realize he was blind.
"Dax," Bob said, "I need to tell you that you have beautiful blue eyes. They remind me of my daughter Emily's eyes."
Dax responded with a wry smile. "Bob," he said in his melodic, laid-back voice, "I need to tell you -- they're plastic."
Dax's unaffected, spontaneous response impressed Bob. "Well, just so you know," Bob said, "whoever did them for you gave you eyes as pretty as my daughter's."
A few nights later, Bob sat alone in the dark and watched "Please Let Me Die." Spence, who had met Dax and knew his story, set up the video in a barn on the grounds so that people who wanted to see it could wander in at their convenience. There on the screen, in flickering black and white images, Bob saw a young Don Cowart -- horribly burned by an explosion, in agonizing pain, sightless, his hands maimed and without fingers -- calmly and rationally explaining to a psychiatrist why he wanted to be allowed to die.
And like Robert White, the psychiatrist who videotaped Dax's ordeal 25 years ago, Bob was moved and impressed by what he saw and heard.
In the days that followed, the more time Bob spent talking with Dax, the more he thought about asking Dax to join his firm. He liked Dax's perspective on life and his honest, straightforward way of getting to the truth. He's the kind of man, Bob thought, that I'd like to have next to me when I try cases.
By the time Dax left Wyoming, he had received an invitation to join the offices of Hilliard & Munoz, a firm specializing in personal-injury cases.
Dax did not accept the job immediately. Before flying down to Corpus Christi to talk to Bob, he went home to think about it. He had spent 10 years in law school and seen his solo practice fail. He did not want to set himself up for another disappointment.
In the years after the explosion, Dax had a recurring dream: He is back in high school, dressed in his football uniform, sitting on the bench. It is his senior year, the last quarter of the last game of the season. In his whole high school career, he has never once gotten off the bench and onto the field. The last few seconds of the game are ticking off. Suddenly, painfully, Dax realizes he is never going to get on the field to play.
Waking from this painful dream, he would ask himself: Am I ever going to get back on the playing field?
After closing down his practice in Henderson, Dax had divided his time between managing his personal assets and speaking at bioethics conferences and graduate schools around the country. had married again, in 1988, to a nurse from Salt Lake City who worked at the University of Utah hospital on the organ transplant unit. Lois "Randy" Randall also taught combat medics for the military. After showing "Please Let Me Die" in one of her classes, a student asked if Dax was still alive. Randy wondered, too, and promised to find out. When she reached Dax by phone in Henderson, the two talked for several hours. The conversations continued over the next few months, and they fell in love.
Life was much better than Dax had ever expected. He and Randy, and the two dogs he loved so much, shared a spacious home with a pool bought with settlement money from the owner of the leaky pipeline that caused the explosion.
Still, something was missing.
Dax missed the camaraderie and discipline of working side-by-side with other people. He thought often of the time spent working on his father's ranch, of his days playing football with his teammates, of the year he was part of a crew piloting jets.
They were the happiest memories he had.
The job offered by Bob Hilliard would give him the chance to get back onto the playing field.
After spending two days with Bob in Corpus Christi, he knew what he wanted to do. He joined the firm. As part of that team, he would fight for clients who, through no fault of their own, were hurt or permanently disabled.
In his new office at Hilliard & Munoz, Dax Cowart is dialing the phone. With his tongue.
"I use my tongue and teeth like a third hand," he says, demonstrating his phone technique, which is amazingly fast, and accurate. Then, using his teeth and mouth, he inserts a cassette into his tape recorder -- first determining which side of a cassette or CD he wants to hear by checking out the location of the screws with his tongue.
Dax understands that even after meeting him, even after getting to know the details of his story, people can't begin to imagine the daily realities of his life.
"Most people think of my disability as being blindness -- they forget I don't have any fingers," he says, stretching out his legs and putting his feet on the desk. Photographs of animals and nature line the walls of his office; a collection of rocks, some from the Spence camp in Wyoming, are arranged nearby. "And, you know, people who have lost their sight use their hands to see with. But without fingers I'm very limited in being able to do that. Which means I can't read Braille, for one thing."
Or write in Braille, for another. Or wash his hair. Or fix a meal for himself. Or cut up his food. Or button his shirt. Or put on his shoes. Or count out money in a store or on a bus.
When Dax moved to Corpus Christi, his marriage to Randy ended, and after eight years of having her act as his eyes and hands, he was faced with the problem of with living alone. The answer arrived in the form of 28-year-old Sarah Walters. She works as Dax's personal assistant on weekdays, seeing to it that his daily needs are met.
L Still, what Dax has learned to do for himself is impressive.
At lunch, the position of Dax's food is explained to him: French fries at 1 o'clock. He clasps his fork between the nub of his left thumb and the stump of the same hand. He has learned to shower and use the toilet by himself. And he has honed his memory to make it a computer-like storage machine.
"See, when you don't have your sight or your fingers and you have a hearing problem, it's very, very difficult," he says. "All your customary ways of processing things and interpreting things are turned upside down. You have to learn how to constantly improvise."
Now, after so many years of struggling against odds that defy calculation, Dax has improvised himself into the profession that eluded him for so long. Friends and family consider it a miracle of sorts that Dax wound up practicing law here.
"I just couldn't believe he found a firm that wanted to take him and was willing to put up with his disabilities," says his longtime friend Daryll Bennett, who practices law in Longview, Texas.
"Dax is my idea man," says Hilliard, who hired Dax in February 1996. "I never allow brainstorming to happen if Dax isn't there. And the fact is, this office needed Dax. The office was drifting somewhat and he has brought us together."
The small office -- six lawyers, including Bob's father -- gave Dax something he needed, too.
"I don't want to use a cliche, but it's like being in a family that gives you a lot of support and love," Dax says. "It's something very deep and meaningful in my life. I consider Bob the closest friend I've ever had."
Often on weekends, someone from the office takes him sailing. The sport is one of Dax's last links to his athletic youth.
"On the boat, he's almost as agile as other people," says Hank Arnold, a consultant to the law firm.
And Dax is often able to do on water what he rarely can on land: sleep.
Says psychiatrist White, who over the years has treated Dax's insomnia, "God knows what ghosts haunt him there in the night."
"Please Let Me Die" flickers on the screen before a silent audience of students at the Corpus Christi campus of Texas A&M; University.
When the 30-minute film ends and the lights come up, a man dressed in a western-style suit and cowboy boots is led onto the stage. In the stump of his left hand, he holds a staff. With slow, stiff steps he walks to the center, then faces the audience.
The students rise to their feet, clapping loudly.
Dax is a middle-aged man now, 50, although there's no way of telling that from his appearance. The lips, nostrils and eyelids he lost to flames have been remolded and stitched back onto his face, the missing eyes replaced by artificial ones fashioned from plastic.
Still, for all its redraping and rearrangement, it is a face of that compels instant respect for the ordeal -- not the surgeons -- that sculpted it.
Agony has found a home in Dax's face; it resides there still, beneath the mask of reconstruction. And its truth sets him apart.
Leaning on his staff, Dax Cowart begins:
"I'm going to talk to you this evening about the right that each of you has to control your own body. The right to control your own body is the right you were born with, and not a right you have to ask anybody else for. Not your government, not your next of kin.
"It is this 'right to be left alone' that Chief Justice Louis Brandeis referred to as the 'most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized man.' Now, if you take away that right, none of the other rights have any meaning at all."
Dax says all this in a reasoned, analytical way. It is the voice of a lawyer speaking. Then something changes:
"I was captive in a hospital for 14 months, and I was told everything I must do. I had no say." His voice rises in anger. "I had no idea that could happen in this country. I was going through hell and there was nothing I could do about it."
We're sorry, Donnie. We're going to have to amputate your fingers and remove your eyes.
"Before we allow a physician to pick up a saw and saw off a patient's fingers or pick up a scalpel and cut out a patient's eyes, we must first be sure that that physician has obtained that patient's informed consent."
Dax Cowart has been called The Man Who Lives to Defend the Right to Die. The more precise description might be The Man Who Lives to Defend the Patient's Right to Choose.
He wants the students to understand the difference.
"I'm not advocating that people choose to die," he tells them. "So many people want to cast me as the right-to-die advocate. And that's only half the equation. I'm an advocate for individuals to decide for themselves. If they want to live, I want them to be able to have access to what it takes to live. If they want to refuse treatment and die, I want them to have that right."
Time, and familial love, has helped Dax deal with one of the people who stood in the way of his rights: his mother. There have been periods when the two were not close. But over the years, fueled by the desire to share their lives, Dax and Ada have been able to put the past behind them. Although she went against his wishes and authorized treatment, Dax feels she should never have been put in that position; that the doctors should have recognized his right as a competent, conscious patient to make his own decisions.
On the program with Dax is Bill Winslade, a professor who teaches law and bioethics at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. The two men met during the making of the 1985 documentary film "Dax's Case" and have become friends -- and friendly debaters. Winslade, who knows every detail of Dax's case, credits Dax with playing an important role in advancing the dialogue on patient autonomy.
"It's one of the most important issues of our time, one that's gaining gradual recognition," he says. "But back in 1973, Dax was pretty much saying all this by himself. Twenty-five years ago, people like Dax just didn't exist -- people who challenged a doctor's authority."
Although the case law concerning the right of a competent individual to refuse medical treatment was not clearly developed in 1973, the legal basis was set down in 1914. "Every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his own body," wrote New York Court of Appeals Justice Benjamin Cardozo, ruling on a case in which a physician operated on his patient in complete disregard of her instructions.
"It wasn't until the mid-1980s," says Winslade, "that we began to look at the right of a conscious, competent patient to make the final call on this."
At the end of the program, students cluster around Dax, asking questions, sharing opinions, thanking him for his courage.
Relaxed and laid-back, straightforward in his answers, Dax still retains something of the Texas cowboy in his attitude. He has an easy smile and, amazingly, the remnants of an athlete's stance in his lean body. It's a style that helps ease people past the terrible implications of that face, those hands, his sightless, plastic eyes.
"Be candid and ask anything you like," Dax says. "There's not anything anybody can say that is going to hurt my feelings."
One student speaks up. "Do you still wish you'd been allowed to die?"
Dax is ready, his answer clear: "The best way I can answer that is that I'm glad to be alive. I've had some happy experiences I wouldn't have had if I had died. But I still believe I should have been the one to make that choice at that time. And my choice was to refuse treatment. If the same thing were to happen today -- even knowing that I could reach this point -- I would still make the same choice."
Soon, though, Dax will add a new chapter to his life. He will be asked to take the responsibility for someone who, like him, saw her future change in the blink of an eye.
Tomorrow: Dax faces a jury and "fights like hell" for his client.
Pub Date: 4/29/98