Last fall, Myra Ford, 71, learned that the Volunteer Driver Program was being cancelled by the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS).
It had been a lifeline — her only affordable way to get from Cloverdale to her chemotherapy treatments at the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver.
She needed to make the trip every three weeks and wasn’t able to get there on her own — or pay $100 for a taxi.
Until mid-2014, her husband was her primary driver to chemo appointments, but that year, he was suddenly diagnosed with cancer himself and died four months later.
Ford’s daughter Leslie, who has three kids and works full-time, drove her mom to her appointments until last year, when they were involved in a serious crash on the highway in Langley.
Both women were badly hurt and Ford is still recovering from a back injury.
It was all “more stress you don’t need,” she says, and her daughter’s injury made it impossible for her to drive her mother anymore.
Ford perked up in early February when she suddenly got a call from John MacInnes, one of the volunteer drivers with the previous cancer society program. It turned out that he was working behind the scenes on getting the old gang back under a new name — same good service, less paperwork for the organizers.
The new incarnation is called the Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society (VCDS), and it’s composed of the same people who volunteered with the cancer society, but they are now not affiliated with it.
“He kept my phone number and thought of me when this thing was going to get off the ground,” says a grateful Ford, who describes MacInnes as a particularly good listener among the old service’s many good drivers.
When the CCS cancelled its volunteer drivers program, its press release said the cancellation was based on “factors such as similar government-funded driving programs, decreasing volunteers and ridership as well as increasing operating costs.”
“I find that hard to believe,” says Ford, calling cancer an “epidemic.”
The society suggested patients who needed rides use the Freemasons’ service or other user-pay services.
Ford rang up the Freemasons.
“I phoned twice. I never got a call back.”
She sometimes paid for other services, but was often told the appointments were too short-notice (they wouldn’t accept anything less than 48 hours).
“If you needed a ride, you were out of luck,” Ford says.
The VCDS, which began service on Feb. 29, would also like 48 hours’ notice, but is not so strict as to refuse service otherwise.
Drivers will pick up clients on the North Shore, the Tri-Cities, Delta, Surrey, White Rock and Langley, and will go to any hospital or cancer-related medical appointments — even as far as Abbotsford.
“I can’t believe how vast it’s going to be,” says Ford.
To make best use of their time, drivers sometimes pick up multiple patients and carpool.
“I find people like to talk about their ailments,” Ford says with a chuckle.
Since it’s run entirely by volunteers, there is no charge for the service.
“It would be fair enough to say that the drivers were really affected by the people we were driving, both them and their families,” explains MacInnes.
“We knew the stress they were under from the standpoint of having transportation completely eliminated, never mind what their families were going through.”
The real keeper, he says, is the volunteer base.
“I was at a meeting yesterday and about 30 people showed up,” says George Garrett, a program coordinator and former volunteer driver who also advocates for the Alzheimer Society of B.C.
“Our legacy is going to be that we’re still going to be here 25 years from now,” says MacInnes, who is 81, and was a volunteer cancer driver for nine years with the CCS — a program that itself lasted about a quarter-century.
“Here we are, we’ve got superb people that are dedicated and have all had experience with cancer patients. If you haven’t driven, you don’t understand the attachment we have with cancer patients.”
Garrett still has a homemade card given to him by a girl who he often drove to cancer treatments.
It says, “To George, my favourite cancer driver: Thank you for being so kind.”
“Unfortunately, she died a few months later,” Garrett says.
The Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society is seeking both volunteer drivers (not just retirees, but anyone with a clean driving record) and donations for the cost of fuel. For more info, visit www.volunteercancerdrivers.ca/ or call 604-515-5400.