From The Eldersburg Eagle, Sunday, October 17, 2010
Lou Yeager of Finksburg recalls the day about 20 years ago when he got the diagnosis. He was 33, and he and his wife, Franca, had been married just six months.
“I went to a hospital,” he said. A doctor walked into the room and asked, “do you want a cup of coffee?”
Yeager said no.
“Well, you’ve only got six months to live,” the doctor told him flatly.
It was cancer.
Doctors told Yeager that if he went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the lymphoma would diminish at first, then return with a vengeance.
“I went out and bought fancy cars, and thought I wouldn’t live long enough to pay for them,” Yeager said.
“Oops,” he said. “Who’d think that 20 years later, I’d still be here?”
Yeager’s struggle as a cancer survivor may have been a financial “oops,” but it proved to be a saving grace for others.
Now 57, he founded and runs Catastrophic Health Planners, a nonprofit that helps patients navigate the health care system and deal with financial, psychological, social and legal catastrophes that often accompany cancer diagnoses.
“I’m just a janitor — I’m just cleaning up social messes,” Yeager said. “We all have baggage.”
That baggage can be debt, divorce, legal problems, depression and other issues, Yeager said.
“If I can take care of the psycho-social part, hospitals can take care of what they do best, which is medicine,” he said.
Yeager’s work has led the Greater Baltimore Medical Center to award him its 2010 Making A Difference Award, given through the hospital’s Sandra & Malcolm Berman Cancer Institute.
According to an Oct. 1 release from GBMC, Yeager was given the award for “his efforts providing … cancer patients with free financial guidance and assistance in navigating the complex health care world.”
Currently, CHP helps 250 patients each month in four states, with a fifth operation soon to open in Florida. The nonprofit has offices at GBMC, but also helps patients at Mercy, St. Agnes and Mount Sinai hospitals, as well as other medical organizations, Yeager said.
He founded CHP in 1993, and said he’s still surprised by people’s situations.
“Every time you think you’ve seen the worst case scenario, you see something worse,” he said.
Yeager has a seeming endless collection of anecdotes.
In one case, he met a patient who was living in a condemned building in Baltimore, but also operated an “araber” — a horse-drawn produce cart.
The man’s one concern was that, while he was getting treatment, would his horse be fed? Yeager contacted a Carroll County farm about providing hay for the horse and, after the first delivery, the farmer pledged to keep supplying the hay.
CHP helps patients file for Social Security disability benefits, sets up wills and trusts, and organizes finances to pay for travel, living and medical costs, and other assistance.
Donna Lewis, manager of GBMC’s oncology support program, said Yeager’s contribution to supporting patients is “worth its weight in gold.”
“Lou’s wealth of knowledge and ability to access resources, combined with being a cancer survivor himself, allow him to truly empathize with an individual’s experiences,” she said.
Michael Schwartzburg, a spokesman for GBMC, said patients find out about CHP’s services through an oncology support program, the hospital’s care management department and staff referrals.
Path of compassion
In their Finksburg home, Lou and Franca Yeager are raising their two children — Michael, 12, who attends Shiloh Middle School and Mariana, 10, who attends Sandymount Elementary School.
But Yeaher recalls that 20 years ago, having children seemed pretty unlikely to him.
In 1986, he had an associate’s degree in law enforcement from Essex Community College and a bachelor’s degree in accounting from then-Towson State College. He was six credits away from finishing a master’s degree in business administration at Johns Hopkins University when he received the cancer diagnosis.
Yeager survived to receive a bone marrow transplant in 1991. Then, over the three years, underwent daily blood transfusions.
As he went through those treatments, he would walk from chair to chair, with his IV plugged in, talking to other patients getting transfusions.
“I cam to find out everybody had similar problems,” he said, noting stories of dire medical conditions, lost jobs and desperate finances.
Now, he helps others get out of the woods when it comes to surviving health care’s psycho-social issues.
But Yeager will probably never be out of the woods in his own health.
As a result of the bone marrow transplant that saved his life, he now has hemochromatosis, a condition that means he has 10 times more iron in his blood than is normal.
The condition can damage his organs, he said. When combined with his weakened immune system, Yeager’s medical outlook is uncertain.
“We gotta let God work that out,” he said.
What he does know is that he takes great pleasure in helping others — and he appreciates the help that others give him as well.
“We’re very fortunate,” he said, noting that people donate cars and other items to CHP, and many foundations also donate money. “We’re very effective at getting things done, and the money keeps coming.”
But Yeager doesn’t ever want his organization to be solely about fundraising. If it comes to that, he said, he’ll stop.
“I basically made a vow 20-some odd years ago,” he said. “When money becomes an issue, we’ll just close up — because this is about helping people.”
By Jay R. Thompson
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org