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Driven to help: Volunteers take to road for cancer patients

Michelle Murray, left, is picked up from her

Michelle Murray, left, is picked up from her Uniondale home by Judy Delaney, with plans for the two to head to Old Westbury Gardens to spend time strolling and catching up among the spring blooms in late May. Murray, a cancer survivor, first met Delaney as a volunteer for the American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery program, which pairs drivers with cancer patients who need transportation to appointments.  Credit: Danielle Silverman

Years after her cancer treatments concluded, Michelle Murray still looks forward to seeing Judy Delaney pull up to her front door.

These days, though, their trips are likely to the Nassau County Art Museum or Old Westbury Gardens — and not to one of the many cancer treatments Delaney drove Murray to over three years. Indeed, the bond they formed during those drives has turned into a lasting friendship.

The American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery program, for which Delaney is a volunteer, doesn't always result in long-term friendships, but each ride delivers a much-needed service. It also counts toward nearly 500,000 rides delivered nationally through the program last year, according to Dr. Richard Wender, ACS’ chief cancer control officer.

"I can't say enough about the Road to Recovery program," Murray said. "At the time I was very sick, and my husband was working in Queens. It was just a rough time, and they helped me enormously."

In 2018, more than 28,000 patients got rides to and from treatment, the society said. The program, which started with volunteers in 1983, has since 2005 provided more than 9 million rides to 490,000 patients.

Murray, 66, of Uniondale, retired in 2016 after 38 years as an assistant supervisor of the phlebotomy team at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. Beginning in 2013, she had chemo and radiation for a year to treat Stage 3 colon cancer, then surgery and another round of treatments that ended in 2016.

“I was so sick when I finally went [for a diagnosis] that they first had to make me better. I’m very blessed to be alive today,” Murray said. She has checkups every six months to detect any sign the cancer is returning. "It was unbelievably frightening. But I'm in remission now, and I'm feeling fine."

The ACS estimates there will be 111,870 new cancer cases in New York state in 2019, according to Patrice Lestrange Mack, a society spokeswoman. Nationwide that estimate is 1,762,450.

In the metropolitan area, which includes Nassau and Suffolk, nearly 1,500 patients requested more than 17,000 rides in 2018, according to Mack. That number has more than doubled from the prior year, she said.

Murray was the first person Delaney drove when she began volunteering for Road to Recovery in 2013. Delaney, 68, of Rockville Centre, found the volunteer opportunity on the society’s website after she retired in 2012 as a controller at a law firm; she has made close to 900 rides with patients. Delaney was familiar with what was required from driving her father to his treatments for blood cancer.

“Sometimes they’re not well enough to drive. The chemo can be five hours and they’re drained when they come out,” she said.

Delaney recounted meeting a Roosevelt woman who, before she found the society’s free ride program, had to travel two hours on three buses to a treatment center in New Hyde Park. “When I started driving her it was about a half-hour drive, even in rush hour,” Delaney said.

Since patients receiving radiation are often finished within a half-hour or so, Delaney usually waits to take them home afterward. For those getting chemotherapy infusions, a much longer process, sometimes five or six hours, Delaney will drop off the patient and return when the treatment is finished.

“If it’s a long chemo, I’ve been known to go shopping while I wait,” Delaney allowed. “Or I go home, then I go back to get them.” Sometimes another volunteer or a family member will handle the ride home.

When it comes to socializing, Delaney said she follows the patient’s lead. “I don’t normally ask, but sometimes they tell me about themselves. Sometimes they don’t want to talk at all,” she said. “Some patients don’t speak English, so I put Google Translate on my phone.”

Delaney remembers calling one patient she would be driving to leave a message with her name, the car she drove and that she would be picking them up, even though the ACS call center notifies patients they have a ride.

“As soon as I accept a ride, I call them because I know people have to make plans,” she said. “One woman called back and asked me to talk about myself so she’d know who was taking her. It made her more comfortable.”

A few months after she started volunteering, Delaney was diagnosed with cancer and stepped away from driving for a time. “It wasn’t bad,” Delaney, who is in remission, said of her treatment. “I’ve had to build up strength, so I understand what they’ve been through.”

She enjoys being a volunteer driver and the flexibility of the commitment — the volunteer chooses when and how far to drive.

Delaney, who also volunteers one day a week doing office work at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, said she tries to drive at least two days a week — and she urges others to volunteer.

“I’m one of those people who truly believe, ‘Do unto others,’ ” Delaney said, paraphrasing the biblical Golden Rule. “I would hope if a family member needed a ride, someone would be able to help them. The feedback is positive, and it’s immediate. People are grateful. The world needs more people doing nice things.”

Along with Delaney, Murray’s other drivers during her years of treatment included other ACS volunteers; her niece Tina Brundage, who now lives in Maryland; and her husband, Dennis, after he retired in 2016.

"My outlook on life is so different now," Murray added. "You don't sweat small things. I take time to enjoy the beauty of life."

Volunteer Michael DeAmicis, 57, of Amity Harbor, received the ACS’s Heart and Soul volunteer award in March for providing 150 rides since he began volunteering in 2011. He wanted a way to give back to the community, so he began researching volunteer opportunities online, where he found Road to Recovery.

Like Delaney, he’d already “been trained.” Said DeAmicis, a financial planner and investment adviser, “I was my dad’s driver when he had cancer.”

“The results of my work are right there in the front seat,” he said. “Some of the patients I do rides for more than once, but the majority are single rides. Some treatments are brief, lasting 30 to 40 minutes, so I wait and I do a round trip for them.”

DeAmicis likes the ease of the computerized scheduling system that connects drivers with riders. “They make it so easy because of the technology,” he said. “They used to call the volunteers to give them their ride information, but now we use a dashboard and set it up with the radius and schedule we want to drive and the options filter through to us. They’ve done a really good job making it automated.”

The system’s dashboard also tells the driver if the patient is alone or will be accompanied, as with minors or patients who need assistance walking. Rides are scheduled two days in advance since patients need to make plans to get to their appointments.

He noted the immediate reward when someone gets into his car. “That feeling stays with you,” he said, describing his empathy for patients. “Just put yourself in their shoes — all I’m doing is giving them a ride. And then treat them really special. Like when a chauffeur gets out and opens the door, the ride is a little more special that way.”

He’s learned to build more time into his schedule for pickups than drop-offs. At pickup, he goes to the person’s door and introduces himself, then escorts them to the car. He said he’s never had to break out the small kit the ACS gives to volunteers in case someone becomes ill.

And DeAmicis has forged warm connections with patients. “There’s a patient I see every other month, I get to hear about her family and children,” he said. “And I hit it off so strongly with one man, he invited me into his home to show me his artwork.” That patient, he said, gave him a postcard-size giclee print of a ship at sea that DeAmicis keeps in his car.

Based on what he’s learned from patients over the years, DeAmicis has a tip for patients needing rides: “Start with the ACS volunteers first and then use your friends and family to supplement those volunteers. That way we all share the burden.”

Drive for volunteers

Even the best cancer treatment can’t work if a patient can’t get there, the American Cancer Society says. Its Road to Recovery program needs volunteer drivers in Nassau, Suffolk and Queens counties to transport patients to treatments.

Potential volunteers need a valid driver’s license, reliable car, a good driving record and proof of adequate automobile insurance, along with regular access to a computer to use the program’s automated system. Volunteers can sign up on the website, cancer.org/involved/volunteer/road-to-recovery.html, or at Relay for Life events. An ACS volunteer care specialist then contacts volunteers to discuss the program and expectations to make sure it’s a good fit. There’s a required online, self-paced training program and a background check; then qualified volunteers log into the online dashboard, provide availability information and get matched with patients.

The whole process takes 10 days to two weeks, said Barbara Messeder, ACS program manager for mission delivery. A key part of the program is what she calls the Road to Recovery’s online service match dashboard. Drivers enter the number of miles they’re willing to drive, using their own car and gas, the times they’re available and then the names of those needing rides will pop up.

“We do ask for a commitment of a year, minimum, and that volunteers provide two rides a month, minimum,” Messeder said. The ACS counts a ride as one leg of the patient’s trip.

There are now 80 volunteers providing rides in the three counties, she said, serving up several hundred rides a year.

“Our goal would be to provide 3,000 rides for the area over the course of the year,” Messeder said.

Once volunteers are approved and trained, it’s up to them to submit their availability in the dashboard and accept rides, she added.

Many volunteers have experience with cancer treatments in their families, and they go through sensitivity training online. “It’s more than a ride,” she explained. “These drivers become sounding boards for these patients.”

Most volunteer drivers are retired or college students, Messeder said, including pre-med students and research assistants at Stony Brook University. Nevertheless, there are opportunities for volunteers who are still working. “It’s not just 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, so people can fit it into their schedules. Some centers are open in the evenings, and some centers give treatments on the weekends.”

“I’m in awe. If there’s a need, people are out there helping. And the feedback we get is wonderful. You have no idea how it pays itself forward, too.

“Between this program and family members, this takes some of the pressure off. It lightens the load,” Messeder said.

Those needing rides to treatment can call the Cancer Helpline at 800-227-2345.

“Cancer’s no longer a death sentence as much as it is something to survive,” Messeder said. “When you can go into a waiting room and you’re not sure who the patient is, that’s a good sign.”

— Kay Blough

Volunteers make organization

With lyrics of praise and encouragement sung to the tune of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” Dr. Richard Wender serenaded American Cancer Society fundraisers at a recent luncheon at Old Westbury Golf and Country Club.

Wender, chief cancer control officer of the American Cancer Society since 2013, was on Long Island from his home in Philadelphia, where he also serves as a family physician and department chair of family and community medicine at Thomas Jefferson University.

“I’m a glass half-full person,” Wender told volunteers from more than two dozen country clubs across Long Island who raise funds for the society with golf, tennis, bridge and mah-jongg tournaments. For instance, Babes Against Cancer, formerly known as the Babe Zaharias Tournaments, raised $1.4 million in 2018 and more than $31 million since it began in 1972. The money is split between breast and prostate cancer support programs. “There’s no job that has the potential to touch so many lives.”

Access to transportation remains a barrier to treatment, so that’s where the society is focusing its efforts. “Because they couldn’t get a ride to treatment, 3.5 million [patients] didn’t get to all their treatments,” Wender explained later.

The social determinants of health — the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age — affect people’s well-being, Wender noted. They include education, activity levels, housing, income, access to food and transportation availability.

The ACS can have a direct impact on people’s ability to complete or receive timely treatment for cancer by helping patients reach their appointments. With that in mind, the society is looking for more volunteer drivers on Long Island.

To help overcome the challenges patients encounter getting to their appointments in several large cities, including New York, the ACS has also joined with the ride service Lyft to subsidize patient rides to treatment appointments. Overall, there was a 38-percent increase in the number of rides for cancer patients delivered last year, Wender said, adding up to close to half a million rides. And in rural areas — what he referred to as the frontier states in the Far West — where the biggest challenge remains transportation, Wender said, the ACS offers a subsidy in the form of gas cards to help patients manage rides.

Across the country there are 10,000 volunteers giving rides in the Road to Recovery program, Wender said.

“They’re doing that from their heart,” Wender told Newsday. “The thing that happens with Road drivers is they refer to their riders as ‘my patients.’ They feel it. That’s the ACS heart at its very best.”

— Kay Blough

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