a support system for improving the quality of life

He Helps Ill Negotiate Daily Trials

From The Baltimore Sun, October 22, 2000

By Maria Blackburn

Lou Yeager doesn’t use chemotherapy or radiation to help patients and their families cope with cancer.  Instead, he mows their grass, helps file their wills, feeds their horses and stands in line for them at the Social Security office when they need to file for their disability benefits.

Yeager, 47, is not a doctor or a social worker, but the Finksburg father of two who knows intimately how a serious illness or accident can affect a person’s life.  As the founder of the nonprofit Catastrophic Health Planners, Inc., Yeager, who learned he had cancer in 1986, makes it his mission to help people who are ill get the personal, legal and financial help they need.

‘Legal issues, financial issues–all this baggage is a normal human condition,’ said Yeager, who underwent a bone marrow transplant and blood transfusions as part of his successful cancer treatment.  ‘When a catastrophic event comes along, it highlights every problem in life.  Now instead of something being a minor event, it’s major.’

Some people need help filling out insurance claims.  Others need assistance with estate planning.  And some people just need someone to talk to.  Yeager either helps people himself or refers them to a volunteer in the business community for assistance.

Craig Noppinger, a financial planner for AXA Advisors in Baltimore, has worked with Yeager’s clients for six years.  His company is one of the nonprofit’s largest donors.  ‘When people get diagnosed, they feel abandoned,’ Noppinger said.  Catastrophic Health Planners ‘fulfills a need,’ he said.  ‘It’s an outlet for people to get information.’

‘It’s filled a big hole for people with tremendous needs,’ agreed Linda Reardon, a former social worker at Greater Baltimore Medical Center and current director of community relations for Sunrise Assisted Living in Towson.  She has referred patients to Yeager for years. ‘You need somebody who knows the system and who can help guide people through.’

The concept sounds simple.  And it is.  However, it’s also somewhat unusual.  Although many charitable organizations are designed to help people who are sick, what’s different about Catastrophic Health Planners, which is based in Finksburg, is that it doesn’t specialize in one disease or offer just one kind of service.

Yeager, a slim man in pressed jeans and running shoes who talks fast and rarely sits still, estimates he has helped 4,000 to 6,000 people since he started the nonprofit in 1993.  His clients have ranged from a dying Baltimore man who needed hay for his horses to an 86-year-old named Esther who wore bobby socks and needed help recovering from chemotherapy.

Last month, Yeager assisted a Westminster 18-year-old with spina bifida who uses a wheelchair and needed a car to commute to Carroll Community College.  The student, Chris Hutchinson, doesn’t have his driver’s license yet, but he’s already planning outings to the movies and Baltimore’s ESPN Zone in the 1993 Ford Escort station wagon.

‘Lou is paying the way for the future of a young man,’ said Alice Hutchinson, Chris’ mother.  ‘He does a lot of good for people who can’t do themselves.  He’s really been a blessing to our family.’

He used money donated to his organization to pay for the car.

Hospitals and other health care providers should offer these service to families, Yeager said.  ‘The problem is the system falls short.  Everyone takes care of their own back yard.  What we’ve been able to do is make up for everything else that hasn’t been provided for.   We get involved in making sure things happen.’

‘I could make a difference’

Yeager says he draws no salary for the job.  He added a paid office assistant hired through a temp service this year.  Yeager’s family lives on the salary his wife, Franca, makes as a configuration manager at AAI Corp., a defense contractor.  As a cancer patient at GBMC, Yeager volunteered in the hospitals’ oncology support lab and provided help and moral support to patients who were undergoing treatments similar to the ones he endured.  ‘I realized I could make a difference,’ he said.

The idea for forming the non-profit came in 1991.  Yeager, then a manager at AAI, was in bed awaiting a bone marrow transplant.  The defense industry was in the midst of downsizing, and Yeager knew he could face a layoff.  He decided to change careers.

‘One-stop shop’

‘My goal was to provide a one-stop shop for patients to support their quality of life,’ he said.  He wanted to provide all services for free.  Over the past decade, however, Yeager has come to realize that some law firms, financial planning companies and other businesses were unwilling or unable to provide their services for free.  As a result, he also serves as a negotiator to get clients the lowest price possible.

Volunteers like Joe Feeney, a financial advisor at American Express Financial Advisors in Towson, said Yeager’s commitment to his work is inspiring.  ‘Lou believes in what he does 110 percent,’ Feeney said.  ‘He has a tremendous energy to help people that are in situations he has been in.’

‘We’re just glad he’s there,’ agreed Laurel Brown, who coordinates the Family Links program at Carroll County Human Services Programs and has referred about three dozen people to Catastrophic Health Planners for help in the past four years.

Catastrophic Health Planners has gone from assisting one or two clients a month to about 100 patients a month, Yeager said.  Donations have increased from less than $25,000 a year to more than $50,000 this year, he said.

Plans to expand

One percent of his funding comes from former clients and their families, Yeager said.  The rest comes from donations from such businesses as AXA Advisors, American Express and PNC Mortgage, he said.  ‘I just beg and grovel, and it just shows up,’ Yeager said.  He said he does not accept money from current clients.   Yeager is in the process of opening an office in Towson.  There, he hopes to provide counseling and resources to people being treated at GBMC and St. Joseph Medical Center.

It will open, he says, as soon as the donated furniture is delivered.

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