Traumatic Brain Injury stole his wife – her cognition, her independence, even her ability to recognize him and their children. Those 12 years awakened the crusader in Robert Yates.
The Kentucky/Ohio border, I-275, June 17, 1989: It was a warm Saturday evening, and Robert Yates was driving through downtown Cincinnati, with his wife, Ellen, at his side. They had been married 30 years – tied the knot one year after UF commencement – and now with their three grown daughters out of the house, they were enjoying their time as empty nesters, at events like tonight’s concert at the Riverbend Music Center.
Yes, he’d done alright for himself at Procter & Gamble, thought Yates (BS ’58), slowing down for the Riverbend exit. (Traffic here was very backed up, he noticed.) Had a beautiful house. The girls had all gotten their degrees. Ellen (BSADV ’58) was busy with church and community activities and a new part-time job…. (Hmm. The lane still wasn’t moving.)
Life was good.
It was the last thing he remembered thinking.
Five days later, he woke up in a hospital in Kentucky, bruised and swollen, front teeth broken off, several fractured ribs, every breath a torture. His daughters Debra, Judi and Kathy were clustered around the bed: He and Ellen had been in a bad accident. They had been rear-ended by a big car going full expressway speed toward the exit, crushing their car like an accordion.
The driver had been drinking, they added.
Ellen had been airlifted to a Cincinnati hospital. She was still in a coma, in intensive care.
Ellen, he thought desperately. I have to see Ellen.
Mr. Yates’s philanthropy has been an integral and key factor for the development of TRACS. He laid a significant foundation for this program.
— Michael Jaffee, MD, Director, Trauma, Concussion & Sports Neuromedicine (TRACS) Program —
After his discharge, his daughters took him to the hospital, where a young doctor delivered the news: Ellen had suffered a brain injury. She was not going to recover, he stressed. (Later, the girls would admit the doctor initially told them Ellen wouldn’t survive at all.)
“It was devastating,” says Yates, recalling the event 30 years later. “She had a closed-head injury, no penetration, but the impact shook her brain so severely within her skull that its connections were damaged.
“Traumatic brain injury, they call it….” His voice trails off.
The June 1989 accident marked a rupture in the Yateses’ life together. For the first 30 years of their marriage, they lived the classic suburban American existence, Yates says, “like Ozzie and Harriet.” Post-accident, they endured 12 years of suffering, separation and searching for answers. Partially paralyzed and severely cognitively damaged, Ellen eventually entered a nonprofit facility for women with traumatic brain injury (TBI), where she passed away in 2001, at age 64.
While searching early on for treatments for Ellen, Yates pieced together a shocking truth: Ellen’s initial recovery had been mismanaged by the pessimistic young doctor, precluding her from getting the restorative care so crucial in the months immediately after surgery. That realization ushered in a new chapter in Yates’s life: He would seek justice and the best care for Ellen. And he’d find a way to further research into TBI, which accounts for 30 percent of all injury deaths each year and has left 5.2 million Americans permanently disabled, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Those quests would ultimately lead him to the University of Florida, which was developing a world-class center of excellence to research, treat and educate future specialists about concussion and traumatic brain injury.
In his and Ellen’s name, he would support UF’s nascent Trauma, Concussion and Sports Neuromedicine Program (TRACS). At its helm was neurologist Michael Jaffee, MD, former national director of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, who had assembled a crackerjack team of practitioners, researchers and post-doc fellows. The groundbreaking work being done at TRACS wouldn’t bring back Ellen. But it could do wonders for someone else’s Ellen, restoring hope and a semblance of normalcy to their lives.
From Palm Beach High to P&G
Robert Yates came into the world on September 9, 1936, in Ames, Iowa, the first member of his family born in a hospital. His mother was a homemaker, his father, a chemical engineer; the pair had met at Iowa State College before eloping and having two sons, Robert and his older brother, Richard.
Little “Bobby” Yates suffered from sinus problems, as did his mother. A doctor advised them to head south for a better climate, and so in 1944, the Yateses hitched a trailer to their 1938 Oldsmobile, bid goodbye to their Victory Garden and headed south to Fort Lauderdale. The clean beach breezes and year-round sunshine did the trick: Neither Bobby nor his mother ever suffered from serious sinus problems again.
By high school, Yates’s family had moved to West Palm Beach, and he was looking ahead to college. A fellow classmate, Burt Reynolds (1936-2018), was offered a football scholarship to Florida State University, but Yates, the class valedictorian, chose “the other Florida college.” In 1954, Yates headed up to UF to study chemical engineering on his father’s recommendation, despite the fact that he had never studied chemistry before.
“Things weren’t as advanced educationally back then as they are now,” says Yates.
Settling into his first semester at UF wasn’t easy for the tall, lanky South Floridian. He practically went into shock when he woke up to find frost on his bicycle seat one winter morning. A bigger challenge, though, was staying afloat academically.
“I did not understand what my chemistry professors were saying,” he admits.
Fortunately, UF had recently hired John Baxter, Ph.D., to direct the first-year chemistry program. A gifted educator and a tech-savvy communicator (he produced and starred in a series of 160 instructional videos for Encyclopedia Britannica, shot at Florida Field), Baxter took Yates and other befuddled first-years under his wing, tutoring them until the mole concept and other fundamentals sunk in. Yates soon leaped to the head of the class and formally switched his major to chemistry.
It was also at UF that Yates fell in love with Ellen Heintz, a vivacious journalism major. The two became engaged at the end of their junior year and graduated together in May 1958. Wedding plans had to be put on hold until 1959 so Yates could complete six months of required active duty in the military. Then Yates had a big decision to make. Big oil companies from Texas had made him lucrative job offers, but lab work didn’t interest Yates.
Instead, he said yes to Cincinnati’s Procter & Gamble, which needed fresh talent to fulfill the needs of America’s booming 1950s consumer base. He would remain with P&G for 35 years, doing product research and consumer analysis for everything from food and beverages to tissues, soaps and detergents.
Early in Yates’s career, he helped developed Dawn, to this day the market leader in dishwashing liquids. He also was technical brand manager for Cheer, Bold, Joy and other products. P&G relied on him to oversee brand reformulations (“New and Improved!”) and to test competitors’ products.
Trying out products at home was part of the job, and Ellen – by then a stay-at-home mom to three girls – welcomed the chance to critique the latest laundry detergents, toilet papers and cake mixes.
“She wanted to be the perfect homemaker,” he says.
Jusice for Ellen
The 1989 accident left Ellen unable to walk or care for herself and cognitively impaired. Depressed and deeply confused, she could not distinguish between fantasy and reality; after watching a TV show about the British royal family, for instance, she would confabulate her own life with that of Queen Elizabeth.
Seeing his wife reduced to such a helpless state tore Yates apart.
After consulting with experts on severe TBI, he learned that after surgery Ellen should have immediately gone into an intensive inpatient rehabilitation program. Instead, she had been discharged to a nursing home where she did no rehabilitation or exercise. Several months later, the therapeutic window to establish new neural pathways had closed; her body had frozen into irreversible positions.
Yates had been unaware of these medical ramifications in 1989. “I was dealing with my own injuries then and trusted the insurance company and the medical professionals to do their best for Ellen,” he says. “I thought they were on our side.”
He also found out that Riverbend had created the nightmarish traffic conditions that led to the 1989 accident. Yates sued the music center, along with the driver who crashed into them, and the case went to trial in 1993. Through an expert witness, Yates learned about Moody Manor, a facility in South Florida dedicated to the care of women with TBI. Yates used the money awarded to cover Ellen’s costs at Moody Manor for the rest of her life.
Ellen’s seven remaining years were happier ones for her, he says. She was kept active, mentally stimulated and surrounded by encouraging friends. But her ties with her family were still greatly diminished.
“I don’t think she ever recognized her daughters – very painful to them,” he says.
Ellen did remember she was married to “Robert” and recognized Yates when he came to visit, but whether she put two and two together, Yates isn’t sure.
“I never knew whether she thought I was Robert or just a new close friend,” he says. “When did her coma end? It never ended for us.”
A Watchdog and a Research Patron
After taking early retirement, Yates moved with Ellen to South Florida and later earned a law degree from the University of Miami in 1998. He became a volunteer Florida Long-Term Care Ombudsman, resolving nursing-home and assisted-living complaints and making sure facilities complied with federal and state laws.
Yates is obviously picky when it comes to senior care, so it is a testament to UF that he plans to relocate to its Oak Hammock retirement community this summer. Now 82 and still active, Yates says Oak Hammock offers the right mix of intellectual stimulation, medical backup and options for assisted living and skilled nursing, should he need them. He’ll also be just a short bike ride from the College of Medicine.
There he established the Robert and Ellen Yates Charitable Fund in 2007 to make an impact on research and programs related to traumatic brain injury, first at the McKnight Center and then at the TRACS neurology program. A critical TRACS goal is to incubate neurology fellows who will go on to spread those methods at centers around the nation. Starting in fall 2019, the Yates fellowship will support not one but two neurologists.
UF Health and the College of Medicine are very grateful.
“Mr. Yates’s philanthropy has been an integral and key factor for the development of TRACS,” says Jaffee. “He laid a significant foundation for this program.”
TRACS is one of only seven centers in the country where post-doctorate neurologists can immerse themselves in the latest treatments and protocols for traumatic brain injury. It’s a dynamic, rapidly changing field, with new research and recommendations coming out every month, says the first Yates Fellow, Dr. Shae Datta, a sports neurotrauma specialist who took the TRACS model to New York University this summer as the new director of its Langone Concussion Center.
“It’s hard for regular doctors to keep up with developments,” says Datta. “As a result, many are treating TBI incorrectly, using outdated protocols.”
One example, she says, is the old standard for concussion care – “cocooning,” or keeping patients very still after a blow.
“Now we know that we need to get patients moving a few days later,” she says. “It stimulates blood flow and hormones that help with healing.”
In the long run, Yates’s philanthropy has the potential to help millions.
“My real passion for giving comes back to my wife,” he says. “Traumatic brain injury is what took her away. It was a shame there wasn’t more help for her.”
“Now, if we can close that gap for others, that’s great,” he adds. “It’s how Ellen would want it to be.”