Yarwood proves he's a fighter

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The voice on the other end of the phone was as crisp as ever, the wisecracks as sharp as before. But just a few minutes after talking to Bruce Yarwood, it was clear this was a different man.

And who could blame him?

Imagine stepping off your exercise bike after about an hour one morning. Say something doesn't feel quite right and you note your wife's panicked call to 911. Then picture seeing three burly paramedics hovering over you.

Finally, wake up five days later—oblivious to the fact that you've had all sorts of machines hooked up to you, instruments poked into your brain and teams of doctors studying you. Relatives from across the country have scrambled to your bedside.

Well, you're liable to gain a new perspective, too.

In case you didn't catch the news yet, Yarwood, CEO and president of the American Health Care Association, endured an aneurysm in late October.

“I'm learning a lot. So far I've been lucky and can get up and move around and use my hands and feet, though I'm pretty careful,” Yarwood confided to me. “All of a sudden, it makes healthcare reform a lot less concerning.”

Such a submission from the 22-year veteran of Washington lobbying is tantamount to a TV exec saying “reality” shows really aren't that important to their networks' success after all. But Yarwood is serious.

“I sure as heck will be careful. I had no inkling anything was going on,” he continued.

The dry-witted and gregarious AHCA point man spent 20 days in intensive care, four days in another hospital wing and then headed home, two days before Thanksgiving. He's been there ever since, relearning many things and attending outpatient therapy twice a week. (“Some lovely little lady makes me do these God-awful things twice a week,” he cracks in a comfortable, self-effacing manner.) He wasn't required to spend time in any of his member's facilities, but he has become very familiar with serious caregivers.

Family members, led by his nurturing and fiercely protective wife, Margarete, and son Matt, took charge early and often. Among other measures, they took away his phone, Blackberry and e-mail for weeks, knowing full well that their loved one could be tempted to jump back into the whirlwind of Washington wheeling and dealing that he loves so much if they didn't clamp down on him.

The way he talks now, you can tell Yarwood knows their loving instincts were on the money, though he also professes he did not have the appetite to connect much with anyone for the longest time. One senses the affable California native itches to get back to pressing the flesh and marching up Capitol Hill sooner than he lets on.

Yet there is also a pragmatic tinge to his speaking that says he's not going to rush off to provoke another blood vessel to burst any time too soon.

Yarwood is very good at his job, but he also knows if he's not healthy enough, he could get permanently grounded by doctors, or by Margarete—his “incredible” wife, who became doting nurse, chauffeur, planner, wardrobe coordinator and more during his extreme time of need.

If Yarwood needed any extra reasons to accelerate his recovery, one would be to get in touch with the hundreds of people who have sent well wishes, prayers or gifts. The house still is overflowing with nearly a dozen poinsettias, he said, adding that UPS delivery drivers became very familiar with his home's address.

“From about 10 to 12 in the morning and 4 to 6 every afternoon, UPS knew they were coming here,” he chuckled, with a humble shake of the head one could easily envision even hundreds of miles away.

Yarwood's burst aneurysm was no small drama happening to no small man. As leader of AHCA, NCAL and its affiliated groups, he oversees the biggest nursing home association in the nation. Last year, he was named No. 25 on Modern Healthcare's list of most powerful people in U.S. healthcare.

It's no wonder he's able to list among his well-wishers “Nancy, Conrad and Jay—people I've known for a long time”—people otherwise known to regular citizens as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV (D-WV).

“I've had so many people from the Hill (U.S. lawmakers and their staffs) either call or write notes. I've been kind of taken aback by how much they've all bellied up to the bar,” Yarwood told me. “I've purposely tried not to make a big thing about (the medical emergency).”

But there is no denying that something major happened, and that a major response was needed. Yarwood repeatedly praised AHCA staff for filling gaps and pulling tighter in his absence. And they'll get a chance to do it for at least a while longer, too.

Yarwood said he purposely is not declaring when he's coming back, though he emphasized he DOES plan on returning full-time. Retirement is not in his vocabulary yet, he impressed upon me. With the sweat equity he's built up in AHCA, it would make sense for him to want to return for at least a little while longer.

Besides, while being No. 25 is nice, there are still at least a few higher spots he can climb. Yet, if that were to happen—and it is something he is openly ambivalent about—one thing is clear: He's going to do it the right way—a safe way—so that no awards or recognition come posthumously.

Yarwood is back in the game, as they say, and he will again be an active, respected player. But at least initially he will be playing more conservatively.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.