a support system for improving the quality of life

Cancer Survivor Honored

From Carroll County Times, Monday, June 9, 2003

Lou Yeager was diagnosed with small-cell nodular lymphoma in 1986.  The cancer had already spread throughout his bone marrow and lymph nodes.  His doctor gave him six months to live and told him to go home.

But Yeager refused to curl up and accept the prognosis and has battled the disease for close to two decades.  He’s undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatments and a bone marrow transplant.  He lives each day with the possibility that the cancer could return.  ‘No matter how bad I feel, I know there’s always someone who is worse,’ he said.  It is this attitude that kept Yeager from dwelling on his misfortune, and in 1993 led him to establish Catastrophic Health Planners.

His organization was set up to help people who suffer a catastrophic event and are unprepared to handle all the stress that accompanies the event, including family, social, financial, legal, and medical issues.  The self-described type-A personality said that the idea that individuals facing tragic events may not have the tenacity that he did inspires him to do everything necessary to help them.  ‘An unexpected illness or tragedy takes a lot of effort to overcome.  It pushes you to your limits,’ he said.

In appreciation for all he has done for the community, Yeager was honored with the first-ever Janet Neslen Award on May 21 [2003] at the Wakefield Valley Golf and conference Center during the annual ‘We’re On Our Way’ event.  The award was established this year to recognize an individual or organization that has done something extraordinary to facilitate access to health-care services in the community–a description that fits Yeager to a tee, said Tricia Supik, executive director of Partnership for a Healthier Carroll County, the organization sponsoring the award.

Disparities in health-care services do exist in this country.  There are people who can’t afford health insurance at all, and there are those who suffer catastrophic health problems, such as a terminal illness or major injuries, where the costs exceed their insurance coverage, Supik said.  Yeager was 33 and a newlywed of six months when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  That was the moment his journey began, he said.

He went home, fired his doctor, and began to search for answers elsewhere.  He searched for opportunities–not to save his life but to prolong it, long enough for a cure or an effective treatment to be found, he said.

Over a five-year-period, he underwent innumerable chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and in 1991, he was offered a bone marrow transplant, which at the time was a fairly new procedure.  ‘They practically kill you,’ said Yeager in describing the process designed to save him.  In preparing for a bone marrow transplant, his existing immune system had to be destroyed.  The bone marrow, which is responsible for producing the blood cells that fight off infection, had to be killed off.  In Yeager’s case, any good bone marrow blood cells were wiped out along with the cancerous ones, making his immune system nonexistent.

He spend six months in an isolation room, he said, receiving daily transfusions just to keep him alive.  ‘I saw the seasons change sitting in that one room,’ he said.  He would let his wife visit only on the weekends, trying to spare her the stress most caregivers experience during these times.

The transplant did get rid of the cancer, but after all the years of chemotherapy, his body was suffering the after-effects.  He suffered heart, liver and prostate damage.  And the effects of the transplant left him with a rare blood disorder that created a dangerous amount of iron in the blood, again leaving his immune system compromised.  Yeager said he takes it day by day.  He does some long-term planning, but as soon as he gets an ache or pain, he said he thinks to himself, ‘Oh, my God, it’s probably bad news again.’  From October 2002 to January 2003, he was sick almost every single day, and battled pneumonia.  But he was not deterred.  His priority was to keep helping others through his organization.  His organization provides educational development, support, and referral services.  It teaches people how to empower themselves during their difficult times, make good choices and find the necessary resources.

Yeager said sometimes he and his many volunteers roll up their sleeves, get in there and just do things the afflicted can’t do for themselves.

The organization provides everything from handicap accessible vehicles to financial assistance to advice on legal problems to mental health support.  Individuals are referred to the program from hospitals, hospices, and state and local governments.  Its services are not limited to cancer patients but extend to any victim of a violent crime, sexual assault, child molestation or any debilitating disease.  Yeager said his organization accepts anybody, as long as they are under a physician’s care, and all services are provided free.

The organization started opening its doors in Finksburg on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and today it averages from 150 to 250 patients a month.  It has an additional office in Bel Air.  Yeager said that he was completely overwhlemed by receiving the community service award and prefers to focus on the work, not the recognition.  ‘The reward is living,’ he said.

Yeager, 50 now, still lives in Finksburg, is still married to the same woman and has a 5-year-old and 3-year-old.  He doesn’t see himself slowing down.  ‘You have to kill me to stop me,’ he said.

Reach staff writer Maria Tsigas at 410-857-7886 or mtsigas@lcniofmd.com

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