Cancer society seeks volunteers to give rides to patients
In 2016, the cancer society provided 6,857 rides to 408 patients in Connecticut
By Ed Stannard
New Haven Register
NEW HAVEN COUNTY, Conn. — Steven Block of Cheshire, who teaches criminology at Central Connecticut State University, has a “pretty flexible schedule,” so when he was looking for a way to give back, he volunteered to drive cancer patients to and from their treatments and doctor’s appointments.
Since June 2016, Block has been one of about 300 volunteers across the state taking part in the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program. “My wife and I had volunteered for a long time in other ways, especially at animal shelters,” Block said. “This just seemed like a good fit to help people out who are in need.”
The cancer society needs more volunteers like Block. “The need is so high, especially in Connecticut,” said Samantha Martinez, program manager for mission delivery for the American Cancer Society’s Connecticut branch. “We don’t have the greatest transportation here in a small state.”
In 2016, the cancer society provided 6,857 rides to 408 patients in Connecticut, Martinez said.
“Right now in New Haven County we’re at 34 percent unmet ride needs,” she said. “Out of the requests that we receive, which would be around 1,500, that would be 500 unmet rides so far for this year because we don’t have volunteers who can fulfill those rides.” Martinez said the cancer society could easily accommodate 100 new volunteers, especially in New Haven County, which includes Waterbury.
“There’s just so many treatment centers that are located in a small radius that we can utilize,” she said.
Block said he’s gotten to meet a lot of different people, united only by being in cancer treatment. “The people that I’ve driven have been fairly diverse, middle age to older patients,” he said. “I don’t ask them at all about their situations unless they volunteer the information.
“It can be a little bit of an emotionally difficult process because some of the people are really struggling,” he said. “It is true that participating in this does make you appreciate … the health you have” and that of family and friends.
“When you just see the variety of people whose lives are disrupted by cancer, it just shows you how many people it can affect in all walks of life,” Block said. “Some of the people are quite able-bodied or people who you wouldn’t recognize that they have cancer if you saw them in a different context.”
Volunteering is a pretty straightforward process, Martinez said. There’s an hourlong online training session, which includes privacy rules. Then the volunteer goes onto a website and enters “their availability and how far they’re willing to drive,” she said. The volunteer then chooses from a list of patients’ addresses. Anyone from 18 to 85 can volunteer and there’s no minimum number of rides that a driver has to sign up for.
“Most of them are retired, looking for something to do … just looking for their purpose in life and looking to get involved,” Martinez said.
Block — one of the younger drivers at 33 — said he looks for people whom he has driven in the past. “It’s something I particularly try to do if it’s someone I’ve driven before,” he said. “You realize some similarities you have, even though you may be from separate generations.”
Block said that if the patient’s appointment goes on for several hours, he can leave and the hospital will call 15 to 30 minutes before the patient is ready to leave. “Generally, I wait for them because in my case I always have my own work to do,” he said.
Kevin Gibbons, who also lives in Cheshire, is retired from a sales job in the medical device industry, so “I know where all the hospitals are in New England … I know about HIPAA [patient privacy law] and I can do CPR and all that stuff.
“I enjoy it. It’s painless,” he said. “The people are nice and they’re mostly open about what’s going on in their life … and they’re appreciative of me volunteering my time and car.”
Gibbons has made himself available within a 60-mile radius. “One fellow I drove from Avon to St. Francis Hospital in Hartford two or three times and he was from Russia and his wife is in a wheelchair at home … and he really has nobody.”
Gibbons has driven patients twice a week in the past, though he’s only doing it once a week now. “But I intend after the holiday season to try to schedule two a week,” he said.
“I’ve probably done at least 40 rides and there’s only a few that are … the same.” He’s even stopped at a store on the way home as a favor to the patient.
But while the volunteering isn’t difficult, each trip can be time-consuming, Gibbons said. “Each event is probably three to four hours,” he said. “It’s at least a half a day of commitment.”
Gibbons said he thinks a lot of people would be interested if they were aware of the opportunity, “but you’ve got to follow through. After you’ve signed up, to me it’s a piece of cake.”