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Monday, April 20, 2009

Prominent Valley attorney dies of rare brain disease

by Luci Scott - Apr. 18, 2009 02:40 PM
The Arizona Republic

A prominent Phoenix attorney has died of an apparent case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is so rare it literally strikes one in a million. It was the first case recorded in Arizona this year; only two cases were confirmed in the state last year.

T. Michael Daggett, 63, who had worked at the law firm Stinson Morrison Hecker for seven years, died April 11 at his home in Paradise Valley.

A conclusive diagnosis has yet to be made, said his wife, Robin. Brain tissue is being analyzed by experts at the Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center in Cleveland.

The state Department of Health Services said early indications are that the disease was “sporadic CJD,” one of several prion diseases that people sometimes confuse with variant CJD, commonly known as mad-cow disease.

Symptoms are similar, so the two diseases are confused because they both involve a buildup of a misshapen protein called a prion.

Sporadic CJD, however, is not caused by eating tainted meat.

Medical science does not know the cause of sporadic CJD. A small percentage is genetic, but Robin Daggett said there was no other case of the disease in his family.

Shoana Anderson, acting chief for the office of infectious-disease services at the DHS, would not discuss Daggett's death because of privacy concerns.

However, she confirmed that an adult male had died of what was apparently sporadic CJD.

Anderson said the brain-tissue examination in Cleveland will likely confirm the diagnosis.

“This testing could indicate a change (in diagnosis), but it's unlikely,” Anderson said.

“People will hear prion disease and automatically assume it was mad-cow disease, but we do not think it was mad-cow disease.” Sporadic CJD is not contagious, she said.

Dr. Jiri Safar, associate director of the surveillance center in Cleveland, also declined to speak specifically about Daggett's case. He said, however, that “prion disease is devastating; it looks like accelerated Alzheimer's disease.”

The average survival time after symptoms first appear is six months, he said.

Daggett's symptoms appeared in January when his head felt pressure, as though he had allergies. In mid-February, he began slurring his speech and felt as though his tongue were swollen. An emergency-room visit ruled out a stroke or brain tumor.

Neurologists at Barrow Neurological Institute performed MRIs, spinal taps and EEGs.

His motor functions were disappearing. He slipped into a light coma about March 27 and the diagnosis came in on March 30.

Michael Manning, managing partner of the law firm where Daggett worked, said he will be missed.

“He was an accomplished lawyer, a fearsome litigator and was a very astute real-estate lawyer, ” Manning said.

Daggett and his wife met in 1992 at a spiritual retreat at which participants also did painting and sculpture.

Robin said her husband was helpful and kind to people, financially and emotionally, and he was generous with his time and knowledge, giving free advice but not formally calling it pro bono work.

“He was a fun-loving person to be around,” she said. “He had quite a sense of humor.”

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