Local Scientist Analyzed His Wife's MS and Wrote A Caregiver's Survival Guide

Jul 5, 2018

Looking for a way to cope with his late wife's multiple sclerosis diagnosis, North Miami Beach native Dr. Robert Yonover called upon his science background and years spent designing military survival guides and did what he does best : he jotted down information, analyzed it and came up with solutions. 

Those notes turned into his new book, “The Caregiver’s Survival Guide: Caring For Yourself While Caring For A Loved One.” In it, Yonover lays out his experience and the challenges he faced during the 19 years he took care of his wife. His life as a caregiver was filled with stress and frustration but he knew he wanted to help others. The book touches on coping mechanisms and his experience through grief, denial and guilt. Yonover says he needed to remember to “just breathe” and think rationally.

Today, Yonover develops military survival gear like a 40-foot inflatable streamer used for easy recognition in search and rescue missions, called the see/rescue streamer. This device got picked up by the reality TV show Shark Tank.

Yonover joined Sundial to talk about the experience acting as the primary caregiver to his wife—all while raising two children and managing a burgeoning startup. His book is out July 17.

WLRN: You're a caretaker, you're an author. When you look at your life now what do you think about?

I just think about the whole journey of trying to take whatever comes upon you and deal with it and when you get knocked down you keep getting up and you can't quit on anything.

Let's talk about your book that's coming out. Your wife was diagnosed with M.S. more than 20 years ago.

And she slowly went from a limp, to a walker, to a wheelchair within a year and then was in a wheelchair for 19 years. So we had to deal with that and not get too frustrated.

Hasn't somebody written about it? 

The reason I did write it [the book] was first cathartically just to record my thoughts—as a scientist I'd like to help and analyze situations. It seemed obvious that no one was breaking it down the way I thought about it. I thought about solving problems the most efficient way possible and ultimately saving people and helping people. I knew it would help me.

You spell out [the process] so beautifully in the book. It starts with a diagnosis. What can you say to people about those first days and weeks after you get the news from a doctor? 

Initially just breathe, just kind of relax and take stock of the whole situation. And then I like to rationalize with how it could be worse. And our initial reaction was 'at least it's not our kids.' You know we had this perfect life and we've done everything already. It was horrible what was coming but we knew we had accomplished everything. We both had been overachievers and had this just romantic perfect life and now we're going into a different phase. And our kids were healthy and that was the whole emphasis for us was to keep them going.

You all of a sudden become this caregiver. I mean look here you have a profession and you're ... as you pointed out both you and your wife were very active, athletic people.

It was tough to be like a macho guy, and all of a sudden be a nurse basically and that was a challenge. But I fortunately came from a very feminist world and I've learned a lot of those skills so it wasn't that hard. And again it's a survival skill—it's all inside of us. You just have to tap it and have your eyes on the prize, which is finishing and just surviving a day at a time. I mean that's the way it is. You just have to laugh through some of the hard times because it gets ridiculously hard. But it's just life. You know you just have to keep going.

How do you help somebody deal with the guilt?

Well it's 24/7 but even if you have an hour a day that might help your whole perspective. So I always had at least an hour a day. And even when you get to advanced stages where you have to hire some help, be strategic. You don't hire someone to hang out and watch a movie with her, you hire someone to do some of the harder things that coincide with a good time for you to take your break. So you just have to be strategic.