a support system for improving the quality of life

Survivor Offers Guidance to Cancer Patients

By Ron Hohnson, Staff Writer

From Carroll County Times, Sunday, June 18, 2000

Lou Yeager is a talker.  Ask anyone who knows him.

As founder of Catastrophic Health Planners, Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps people who find themselves in difficult situations, his conversational abilities are vital.  In addition to talking with those who need help, he has to build relationships with those who can provide that help.

Yeager is also known for his sense of humor.  The man can make a joke out of almost anything.  But when asked about his family, the Finksburg man was nearly speechless.  The minutes of silence before he finally spoke seemed endless.  “I don’t think words…,” he said, his voice trailing off as he reached for a box of tissues just out of his grasp.  “I don’t think words can do it justice.”  Yeager, 47, never thought he’d have the privilege of being the father of Michael, 2 1/2, and 12-week-old Mariana.

Yeager was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1986, only six months after marrying his wife, Franca.  The cancer had spread all through his body.  “You don’t plan too far,” he said, “’cause you don’t want to get your hopes up–’cause you don’t want to let anyone down.”  The doctors told him to go home and die.  “Your whole life changes,” Franca said.

Not until after the diagnosis had Yeager been concerned with having children.  He was a man driven by his career.  He wanted to see how far he could ascend the corporate ladder.  His end goal was to be the president of some huge corporation, raking in the dough.  “He was very much into material things,” said Criag Noppinger, who worked with Yeager at AAI Corporation, a defense contractor based in Hunt Valley.  “After he was diagnosed with cancer, he was definitely a changed man–the material things didn’t matter.”  Yeager worked in the Missile and Robotics Division at AAI Corporation, where he would do a number of things, from marketing to financial planning.

Shortly after his diagnosis, Yeager was dealt another blow.  A shift in the defense industry caused layoffs.  He was one of those affected.  After eight years of service at AAI Corporation, Yeager was out of a job.  Faced with a terminal illness and unemployment, he spent his days wondering what to do.  He knew he had choices.  He said he remembered thinking either he could explore those choices or sit back and wait to die.

“How do you go on after someone tells you you’re going to die?” he said.  He recalled sitting on the deck at his home one day after the diagnosis, his head in his hands, his head on his knees.  He was looking at the ground, feeling sorry for himself.  He observed an ant carrying a dead insect away.

“It was the first time of my life I realized that there was a world going on around me,” he said.  “I just hadn’t stopped long enough.”  Yeager figured his death was near and he didn’t challenge that, but after watching that ant struggle with its load, he resolved to find out how to improve the quality of the life he had left.

After a bit of searching, he found two doctors, one in Maryland and one in Pennsylvania, who could help him with his health.  He probed doctors and medical institutions for any available information about cancer treatment and alternative and experimental treatment options.  But, most important, Yeager said, he focused on doing such things that had meaning, such as spending time with his wife.

He was overwhelmed by the amount of information that was available, but what really floored him was how difficult it was to retrieve it.  People on the other end of the phone were telling him what he needed to do in order to get the information.  “They’re telling you you have to do all of this stuff–and you’re dying,” he said.  “No one ‘got it.'”  No one seemed to understand that he was sick and could not travel here, there and everywhere to get what he needed.

In 1991, five years into battling his illness, the idea for Catastrophic Health Planners was born.

“People shouldn’t have to drive all over town,” he said.  Yeager thought that the resources should be made available to those in need, and in the comfort of their own homes.  He thought that someone should do the running around for them.  He wanted to help people who had to deal with terminal illness and who needed help with things such as financial planning and wills.  He wanted CHP to act as a resource for people faced with dire circumstances who didn’t know where to go to get help.

Yeager figured that if people could have the peace of mind of knowing that all of the business had been taken care of, they could spend their last days at peace, content to remember.

He said his happiest days are spent listening to terminally ill patients talk about sunsets, family gatherings–the pleasant things about life.  “The joy I get out of helping people in a tough situation–it’s neat,” Yeager said.  Even though the idea for CHP was in place, Yeager wasn’t physically ready to put it into motion.  He spent his days in continual illness.  He remembers vomiting a couple of times a day in response to his illness and chemical treatments.

Then there was the chronic fatigue, the bruising–it wasn’t a pleasant time.  But through all of that, Yeager was determined to live a normal life, working and volunteering at GBMC [Greater Baltimore Medical Center], where he was a patient as well.

In 1991, he had to have a bone marrow transplant.  He had to go to a Fairfax, Va., hospital for it.  He spent six months there, three of them in complete isolation.  But during the time when he was allowed to receive guests, he was touched by people who traveled to see him.  “It was like being in a different country,” he said of being in the Virginia hospital.

After working 60- and 80- hour weeks, Dr. Earle Flick, veterinarian and owner of Route 140 Veterinary Hospital in Finskburg, would travel at least once a week to see Yeager.  Flick recalled meeting Yeager around 1986 when he brought his cat in for treatment for cancer.  Then, Flick worked in Owings Mills.  A friendship materialized and they remain friends to this day.  “I just did that because I loved him,” he said.  “The Lord gives you that kind of desire.  I was motivated to go to the hospital and give him some encouragement.”

That’s just the kind of support that Yeager wanted CHP clients to have.  He wanted them to feel as if someone cared about their struggles.  Yeager spent the next one-and-a half years getting blood transfusions every day.  He would go to GBMC for that.  He remembers walking around the hospital pushing his IV pole, trying to find a way to be useful.  He didn’t want to sit around.

Finally, as his health was improving, Yeager went forward with his plans for CHP. In May 1998, CHP was no longer an idea.  The organization was incorporated.

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