BY JENNIFER SELF Californian lifestyles editor
Mark Yeary, an alumnus of Merle Haggard's legendary band, The Strangers, is recovering from open-heart surgery and a stroke that has impaired the pianist's right hand.
But Yeary said in a telephone conversation Monday from his Tucson hospital room that doctors predict he will regain full use of his hand.
"I've been able to move it all along," said Yeary, 60. "It's just the small motor skills, coordination. But the more I mess with it, the more it's coming back. I catch myself doing something I couldn't do yesterday."
Yeary is in Arizona playing in a Merle Haggard tribute act fronted by the legend's son Marty and expects to be back for the New Year's Eve show at the Paramount Theatre in Casa Grande, Ariz.
"I've been playing for so long, I don't really need to be 100 percent," said Yeary, who still appears in local clubs during his frequent trips to Bakersfield. "The strength is the main thing. Playing the songs is no problem."
Yeary began experiencing chest pains the afternoon of Nov. 15 but performed a scheduled show with a different band he plays with that night, said his girlfriend, Leticia Mollers.
"I picked him up from playing a show at 12:30 in the morning and from there we went to ER," she said.
It was during the Nov. 29 surgery, Mollers said, that doctors believe Yeary suffered the stroke, but the severity couldn't be evaluated until he emerged from sedation days later.
As for his rehabilitation, Yeary -- who underwent open-heart surgery at age 7 because of a valve defect -- has committed to eating better and giving up his beloved Pepsis. He's already hard at work on his musical therapy, thanks to a small keyboard in his hospital room.
"I was really lucky," he said.
Friends and fans have been calling, emailing and expressing concern on social networking sites, an outpouring that has astonished the couple. Even Merle Haggard, who hired Yeary just a couple of years after his graduation from East Bakersfield High, took the time to call and offer his encouragement.
"He told me to hang in there -- the usual stuff," Yeary said.