His toughest case

Updated June 26, 2018
Damon Higgins
Tendler in court with his client, Adam Gaillard (foreground), in March 2008. Gaillard was charged with driving into two women who were walking on the Blue Heron Bridge and leaving the scene. The case ended in a mistrial. Gaillard later accepted a plea deal. DAMON HIGGINS / THE PALM BEACH POST

A knock on a door stopped Richard Tendler mid-sentence. His back straightened almost instinctively in his chair, just as it has at the first sign of every verdict.

Two decades as a criminal defense attorney in Palm Beach County have taught the 51-year-old West Palm Beach man to never predict how things will go.

UPDATE: Test results mean new cancer fight for West Palm Beach attorney

“I’ve had cases I thought I won come back guilty,” Tendler had said hours earlier. “Then there were cases I was sure I lost, and the jury would come back not guilty.”

Another certainty: Tendler knew was that he would go home a free man that night, regardless of his client’s fate.

This time was different.

Tendler was seated in an examination room at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, where he is one of 10 patients in an exclusive clinical trial for cancer patients whom other doctors have told to prepare to die.

Knocking on the door was Dr. Christine Chung, who is treating Tendler and nine others with an immunotherapy regimen as part of a trial that includes 500 patients in the U.S. and around the world.

Chung, the chief of head and neck oncology at Moffitt, was ready to deliver her own verdict — on the results of Tendler’s third six-week cycle. She greeted Tendler’s larger-than-usual entourage that day with polite handshakes and a tight smile.

After the first two cycles, she said, the treatments have cut in half the size of one lesion on Tendler’s lung and slightly shrunk another. A pair of smaller lesions on his liver remained the same size. That much was welcome — though it’s still early in the treatments.

Regardless of whether it’s good or bad news, Tendler has been here before.

By the time he first felt a lump in his throat in December 2015, Tendler was just several months past one of his most high-profile cases. It ended with what was widely considered a great plea deal allowing Boynton Beach mother Heather Hironimus to escape criminal charges for running away with her then-4-year-old son to prevent his father from having him circumcised.

His previous cases ranged from the most tragic to the most bizarre, earning Tendler a reputation as a survivor of the grueling grind of private practice.

Among his clients: People involved in deadly car wrecks, a university gunman in the wake of another college shooting, and a teenager charged with killing a goose.

Comforting his mother

Two weeks before Tendler discovered the lump in his throat, he had consoled his mother, Sonia, through a doctor’s tragic prognosis giving her just two months more to live with end-stage pancreatic cancer.

Her sister, his aunt Vera Muller, noticed the lump when he came to visit his mother at her Miami apartment.

“I said, ‘Oh, my God, Richard’ and he said ‘Shhh!’” she said before Tendler’s visit to Moffitt last month, putting her finger to her lips to mimic the gesture her nephew made back then. “He didn’t want his mother to worry.”

Doctors by then had confirmed Tendler’s suspicion. The lump was cancer, brought on by an illness Tendler didn’t know he, too, would soon be diagnosed with.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 79 million Americans had been infected with human papillomavirus, or HPV, as of last year. With 200 strains, most of which carry no symptoms and go away on their own, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the nation.

The strain Tendler contracted at some point in his life was the rare variety that caused his cancer, his doctors informed him. Although there now exists a vaccine for the virus that is recommended for teenage girls and boys alike, no such prevention existed when Tendler was growing up.

On Jan. 25, 2016, Tendler’s 49th birthday, he underwent a two-hour surgery to remove the cancer from his throat. He had to be on a feeding tube for a month and recovered at his mother’s Miami apartment, with aunt Vera playing nurse to both her sister and her nephew.

Now 75, and moving to South Florida from Tendler’s native Venezuela, Vera Muller remembers her sister died six weeks into Tendler’s recovery. She was 68.

With his grief still fresh, Tendler then went through a grueling round of radiation and chemotherapy, which required him to live on the feeding tube for another four months.

“It was worse than the surgery,” Tendler remembered. “I couldn’t drink water. I couldn’t even swallow a pill.”

Three months later, Tendler returned to the courthouse much thinner and scarred from his surgery, but cancer-free according to his tests. His doctor reassured him that the worst was behind him.

“He told me ‘I’ve never had one come back,’” Tendler remembers.

His did.

In May 2017, doctors noticed a spot on his chest, and eventually discovered three cancerous lesions on his liver. The cancer had spread, or metastasized, the doctors told him.

Tendler remembers one oncologist telling him he only had months to live. The doctor suggested, matter-of-factly, that he prepare for his death.

“That oncologist talked to me like a piece of dirt,” Tendler said.

He visited several others, and although they were more gentle in their delivery, their news was largely the same.

The sentence for the defense attorney was death, they told him, and it would be coming soon.

A doctor offers cautious hope

That summer, Tendler visited Chung at Moffitt. Having immigrated to the United States from Korea with her single mother and two brothers as a child, Chung went to medical school and decided she wanted to be an oncologist.

Tendler and Chung soon learned that, while in different professions, they shared similar views and experiences. Like Tendler’s clients, Chung’s patients are a varied group, including former smokers and people like Tendler, who contracted throat cancer patients via HPV. The common demonator: They all have a right to treatment.

“None of us is guaranteed good health tomorrow. It is a gift,” Chung said.

Tendler, like most criminal defense attorneys, believes every person accused of a crime, no matter how heinous, is entitled to a fair and just journey through the legal system.

Chung received grants from a pair of foundations that paid off all her medical school loans, a fact she says makes her believe her work is to serve the public. Tendler, who started his career as a public defender, understands.

And with Chung, he found not just an advocate for his life but a doctor who Tendler said was the first to really treat him like a human being. Tendler says her presence in his life tops the list of blessings he makes a habit of thanking God for daily.

Chung told him they would fight the three lesions with CT ablation, a form of targeted radiation that successfully obliterated the three spots. But soon afterward, two more lesions appeared on his liver, and another pair of cancer lesions were now in his lungs.

Chung is clear, both in her conversations with Tendler and in an interview on the day he receives his test results, that there is currently no cure for Tendler’s cancer. She calls the current clinical trial a form of palliative care, meant to reduce the cancer’s severity and alleviate Tendler’s symptoms in hopes of keeping him healthy long enough for researchers to find a cure.

The clinical trial, sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb, is a blind study in a treatment that involves immunotherapy, a process that stimulates parts of the patient’s own immune system to fight the cancer.

All patients in the study receive doses of the immunotherapy agent Nivolumab. Two-thirds of the patients also receive a second drug, and the others receive a placebo.

No one — not even Chung — knows which patients are receiving the second agent, a secret she says is vital to the research to see if the two agents together work better than the single Nivolumab treatment alone.

Tendler’s lesions are not as severe as some of her other patients, Chung says, and after two cycles, the results are promising.

Although he is on pain medication, his treatment has been a breeze compared to his radiation, he said. And the fight for his life has brought with it an unanticipated life lesson.

Tendler, who for 20 years poured his life into his work, is learning how to celebrate.

For the first time ever, Tendler this year threw himself a party.

More than 250 guests, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and a veritable who’s who in the Palm Beach County legal community, attended an outdoor soiree on a Saturday night in April under a large tent outside Tendler’s West Palm Beach home.

Anticipation for the gathering buzzed through the halls of the courthouse in the weeks prior, and intensified after Tendler announced his special guest: The Mentalist, Gerry McCambridge.

Tendler had met McCambridge through Tony Robbins, the motivational guru with whom both are friends. Still, when Tendler originally asked McCambridge to perform at his party, McCambridge flatly rejected the idea. He told Tendler he never performs at parties or other such events.

But Tendler, who made his living persuading juries, eventually prevailed, and McCambridge agreed to cancel his Saturday night show in Las Vegas to come to Florida. At the end of his 90-minute performance, Tendler’s party guests gave McCambridge a rousing standing ovation, and then another for Tendler himself.

Tendler had asked Chung to attend and even offered to arrange for her flight, put the doctor declined, saying it was improper for her to accept such a gift from a patient. Instead, she made a promise to the man other doctors said was living on borrowed time.

In five years, when he is in remission and no longer her patient, she’ll come to his victory party.

In the meantime, Tendler leans on the support of close friends like Gary Czajkowski. The men had been acquainted for years, but their friendship cemented in 2016, when Tendler unwittingly put in an offer on a home in West Palm Beach and discovered Czajkowski was the owner.

“I told the Realtor, ‘That’s my friend!’” Tendler said.

By the next morning, the two men were on the phone and made a quick deal.

When Tendler’s cancer returned a month after the closing, Czajkowski and his wife, Mary Jane, checked on Tendler regularly. But Czajkowski didn’t stop there. A construction company owner who is a licensed pilot, it was Czajkowski who personally flew Tendler in his private place to several hospitals as he sought treatment, and ultimately flew Tendler to his first fateful meeting with Chung. Now Czajkowski flies Tendler to Tampa every two weeks for treatment.

On that Monday in May, while waiting for the test results, the men’s camaraderie revealed the ageless cadence of lifelong friendship. Both in their 50s, they share throughout the day a couple of private mischevious jokes that propel them to laugh and nudge one another like college kids.

When Tendler and the group get on an elevator that day, someone asks Czajowski how he’s related to Tendler. One person calls him Tendler’s pilot. Another calls him an angel.

“I’m his friend,” Czajkowski said, pressing the button for the third floor without looking up.

Later, Czajkowski is the first to emerge from the room after the meeting with Chung, and his crinkled brow reveals the news is not what Tendler had hoped.

Tendler himself is silent. His aunt is the first to speak, and even then she whispers.

It’s not all bad, but not all good, she explains. The larger mass on the lung has shrunk by almost a third, and the smaller one has reduced in size as well.

But the tests revealed a new spot of some sort in the T6 vertebrae in the middle of his spine, a sign that the cancer could have spread to his bones. Dr. Chung says it is in a spot where she is unable to do a biopsy. She plans to use targeted radiation to treat it if it’s cancerous, but Tendler will need to undergo more testing to determine whether it is.

After receiving the news, Tendler and his loved ones head upstairs, where he was to receive another round of treatment.

In a rare flash of exasperation, Tendler leans against an elevator wall once its doors close.

“It’s always something,” he says, shaking his head.

His aunt, who throughout the day has offered affectionate reassurance of straightening his collar, stroking his cheeks and searching his eyes until he matches her smile with his own, now rubs his back and reminds him that it’s too soon to jump to any conclusions.

Friendship and perspective

By the time his treatment is over and he boards Czajkowski’s plane, Tendler’s cautious optimism returns. Even if it is more cancer, he decides, he’s been through worse.

A week later he returned to Tampa for testing. When Chung called with the results, she said although she couldn’t completely eliminate the possibility that the spot was cancerous, she was almost convinced that it was not. Not certain, but sure enough that she opted to watch it rather than doing radiation.

In their 5-minute conversation, Tendler never once asked his doctor to give him the odds.

“I didn’t ask,” he said. “Whenever my clients asked for percentages, I never gave them any, either.”

Tendler is scheduled to get his next round of results June 25. Although he says the week before he gets results is always the most nerve-racking for him, the previously characteristically nervous defense attorney now enjoys daily doses of what he said he previously took for granted while trying to build his practice: perspective.

Had it not been for his treatment at Moffitt, Tendler said, he’d likely be dead, or barely 100 pounds and unable to function on his own.

He has shut down his legal practice, but still provides commentary on legal issues for local and national news outlets.

Every once in a while, he gets a call from a friend or former colleague recalling how great his party was two months ago. His favorite moment is one where he made the entire crowd laugh.

“I can’t believe how many people are here,” he told them. “Everyone must’ve thought I was dying. But I’m not.”