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DHS's new No. 1 son; Dr. Terry Yamauchi brings his medical background to one of the toughest jobs in state government.

DHS's New No. 1 Son

Dr. Terry Yamauchi Brings His Medical Background To One Of The Toughest Jobs In State Government

Bob Fiser and Terry Yamauchi have been the best of friends since their medical fellowship at UCLA in the early '70s. So it follows quite naturally that Yamauchi was one of the first physicians Bob Fiser recruited to Children's Hospital in 1975.

For some time after Yamauchi's arrival, Fiser carefully enunciated "Yah-mah-OO-chee" for the benefit of the doctor's new colleagues who were unfamiliar with Japanese surnames, but today Yamauchi is "much better known in this state than I am," says Fiser, chairman of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences campus and Children's Hospital.

Yamauchi has just taken over the directorship of the state Department of Human Services, arguably one of the toughest jobs in state government. His selection also generated publicity as the first Asian-American to reach a cabinet-level post in Arkansas.

DURING A RECENT interview, Yamauchi is conservatively dressed in a white shirt and navy slacks. His stiff white coats with the formal navy blue "Dr. Terry Yamauchi" embroidered on the pocket hang slack on the back of his office door. He is ever gracious and deferential without a hint of flattery as he welcomes visitors.

A physician's analytical mind quickly is ticking off the assets and liabilities of his guests, but one suspects from the crinkles around his eyes and his gentle smile that there's also a fun-loving side of him simmering just beneath the decorous exterior.

The Oregon native jokes that he is the "No. 1 Son," the oldest of three children. Yamauchi's childhood was interrupted only by two years in a U.S. Army school in Japan from 1955 through 1957 while his father served as a treasury representative of the United States at the American Embassy in Tokyo. He has wanted to be a physician for as long as he can remember, but his first love was baseball, an avocation he pursues today.

The metamorphosis from baseball to a serious quest of medicine was two-phased. In high school, a counselor told him to choose another career because he wasn't smart enough to be a doctor. With a twinge of anger and defensiveness still in his voice, he admits "that sort of burned me" and undoubtedly the incident only spurred on his interest in a medical career. Then in college he discovered he truly wasn't good enough to play professional ball.

When the time came to choose a medical specialty, he decided upon pediatrics because of a love for children. "Children are great patients to have, because they heal well. They have a lot of potential, a lot of years left to be productive and amount to something."

Yamauchi obtained his medical degree cum laude at the University of Oregon in 1967, served his internship and residency down the coast in Torrance, Calif., and a post-doctoral fellowship in infectious diseases and microbiology at UCLA, where he met Fiser. Both men were asked to serve on the faculty at UCLA after the fellowship, but, after a year, Fiser came back home to Arkansas. He called Yamauchi daily, asking him to visit Arkansas and Yamauchi finally relented.

That visit has lasted some 15 years, as the doctor found Arkansas to be "a wonderful place to live and raise children." He married shortly after medical school and has a daughter and son now at Southern Methodist University. The state is little different from Oregon, offering the outdoor activities that Yamauchi loves, particularly hunting, fishing and baseball.

For 13 years, he's played baseball in a Little Rock league that last year won the city championship for ages 30 and over. He's third baseman and the oldest person in the league. His other long-term hobby is magic. He's taken lessons for years and produces a couple of shows for Children's Hospital each year.

Professionally, in addition to his well-publicized work as a consultant for NBC's The Today Show, the Little Rock School District, and efforts with the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, he's been on the staff and/or directed a number of special courses in the U.S., Mexico, Bermuda, England and Canada. His curriculum vitae lists 27 societies, 13 national committees and councils and 11 state committees on which he has served, plus nearly 100 articles, 12 book chapters and various commercial videotapes and training manuals that he has authored or co-authored.

So how does the busy doctor find time for these varied interests, plus family and friends? He answers, "Well, actually, I'm kind of compulsive." (For example, he sets a goal to read so many pages a day and then reads them.)

THE HELM OF DHS WAS not a position that Yamauchi agreed to lightly. He and the governor had discussed the position six or eight months previously, but Yamauchi wasn't interested. However, the issue kept resurfacing. About 10 days before the announcement finally was made and after Yamauchi had rejected yet another overture, he was invited to an early morning meeting with Gov. Bill Clinton at the mansion.

After about an hour's discussion, Yamauchi asked for 24 hours to think over the offer. While Yamauchi's wife and parents advised him not to take the job, Fiser and other colleagues thought it was a good opportunity.

Despite his own close friendship and advice, Fiser credits Clinton's powers of persuasion for Yamauchi's decision to take the job. "As much as anything else, it was the personal effort of Bill.... But, secondly, I really think Terry feels everybody reaches a time of life in their late 40s when they want a new challenge."

Fiser thinks his friend is singularly well qualified for the challenges of the position, bringing the private-public perspective of health care together in a nice fashion, drawing from broad experience in academics, infectious disease and patient care.

Because Yamauchi knows so many physicians and health care delivery people in the state, Fiser says, "He's going to get a tremendous amount of support and have the medical profession maybe become proactive, rather than always responding. I think he knows he has great people skills and I think he also knows he's sort of single-minded in his pursuit of excellence. He'll put both of those to use in an area where, to be honest, no one has the answers today."

While Yamauchi is directing DHS, he still has long-term commitments for the next 18 months to the university and Children's Hospital that he will honor with the blessing of Clinton. Prior to this job, he merely had increased efficiency, rather than cutting commitments but now he says, "I am cutting back [and] somewhere there will be a balance."

One of the things he's valued particularly in his jobs with the university and hospital is his freedom to lecture and teach in other medical schools. Yamauchi's abilities in those areas are considered an asset to the university and hospital, as well as enhancing recruitment of bright young doctors to Arkansas. He hopes that freedom to travel will continue in his new position.

"Unfortunately," Yamauchi says, "not everyone sees it that way. People have criticized Gov. Clinton because he's gone from the state. They don't understand that he is working for the state."

Yamauchi thinks the No. 1 problem in his new position is a lack of funding for programs. "Of course a great deal of this job is to try to appease everyone. That's impossible -- somebody's going to be upset. So I'm just going to do the best that I can.

"We've got people in the department that are very bright. They are there because they know how to do finances...because they know how to deliver services. Why have leaders, if you don't believe what they say? I think I'm a good administrator."

Yamauchi warms to his subject with an enthusiasm that is almost palpable. "I think we've got a large elderly population that needs to be looked at. We know that we've had a problem with infant mortality, for example, and we've seen changes in the infant mortality with better funding and coordination of services.

"Hopefully, we could do something like that for all of our services. I'm not promising that, but certainly that's one of the things that I would like to do."

Yamauchi is also aware of the debate over spending funds to maximize federal matching money versus holding back state money for possible emergencies. One strategy is to balance the need for matching federal funds with keeping a reserve for emergencies. Yamauchi feels his predecessors did a good job in using the federal money, so that only $700,000 remains -- not a previous estimate of between $12 million to $20 million.

"So the answer: what am I going to do? I don't know," Yamauchi answers his own question. "We can't give everything we need to give. I'm certainly not advocating cutting back on services yet, but it may come to that. If we don't have any money, there's no way to do it."

With the position of DHS director known to be a political hot seat, are there detractors already lurking in the wings? "Oh, I'm sure there will be some," he says pragmatically. "It's the nature of the beast, isn't it?"

"I think this is going to be a very exciting time in my life...a challenge," continues Yamauchi. "It's something entirely different than what I've done before, but I've got a lot of supporters -- a lot of people who are going to help me with making judgments and supporting judgments that I do make independently. They're going to support them because I made them. I guess that's a burden I'll carry, but I am looking forward to it."

Cheryl Kennedy is a free-lance writer living in North Little Rock.
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Title Annotation:Department of Health
Author:Kennedy, Cheryl
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jan 15, 1990
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