Penny Sylvester was at the end of her rope. Diagnosed with cancer and facing radiation treatments for six weeks, she was sill unable to drive due to surgery, and wondered how to manage.
Cab fare was too expensive, and Sylvester couldn't expect her adult daughter who lives nearby to leave work daily and drive her for treatments.
"I've been independent all my life. To call my child and ask her to take off work would really hurt," Sylvester said.
Then a phone call came from Frances Pare. She would drive Sylvester back and forth — for one treatment, Sylvester thought. But, no, it was for the entire six weeks. Not only would she take Sylvester, she would wait and drive her home.
"Who in the world would do this for a person they don't even know?" Sylvester wondered.
Pare is a volunteer with Road to Recovery, a free service offered by the American Cancer Society that provides transportation to and from medical appointments. Drivers use their own vehicles and buy the gas. Road to Recovery is available when there are no other options for transportation.
Pare knows cancer personally. She's a breast cancer survivor, and she was 10 when her mother was first diagnosed with cancer. For more than 40 years, cancer has been on her doorstep.
"After my cancer treatments, I knew driving others was a way I could give back," Pare says, and four years later, she's still transporting cancer patients.
Sylvester and Pare became friends and during an interview they sat side by side, sometimes gently teasing, nudging each other and laughing.
"Frances took me for treatments with a smile. She gave me back my confidence and dignity," a serious Sylvester says, glancing at Pare with a grin, "And she was never late one time, either."
Drivers and patients don't always grow close, but with Sylvester and Pare it was different. They say they're friends for life, and Sylvester, now in remission, is eager to register as a volunteer, complete training and start driving other patients.
Kelly Smith, volunteer coordinator of driver services, explains the process:
A newly diagnosed cancer patient gets a referral number from his or her doctor. A call is placed to the American Cancer Society and an assessment determines exactly what transportation the patient needs. The information is sent to Smith, who tries to find a driver living near the patient, like Pare, who can do round-trips.
"We are very flexible with the drivers, especially now with the price of gas," Smith says.
"Right now we have eight drivers for all of Pasco County. We need 15 and we especially need drivers in the Dade City and Zephyrhills area. This is not a service based on financial need. Cancer doesn't discriminate. If someone needs transportation, they will get it," Smith says, adding that in extreme cases when all other possibilities are exhausted, cab fare may be picked up by the American Cancer Society.
The American Cancer Society screens and trains new volunteer drivers. There are strict requirements, including a good driving record, a reliable vehicle and insurance.
A training session helps drivers know their roles. Guidelines include that drivers provide transportation only for treatments, not general errands; that they cannot physically assist patients who cannot walk — a family or friend must accompany those patients; and that they cannot give medical advice and must call 911 for any emergency.
Maps, directions and phone numbers are given to a driver who calls the patient a couple of days ahead to get acquainted and determine the schedule. Drivers learn from experience how to handle many situations.
"You do become more involved than just showing up and driving," Beverly Peltier says, adding that personal touches help, such as listening to a patient.
Peltier, of Hudson, has enjoyed being a volunteer driver for a few years. She knows the value of the free ride, but because of the rise in gas prices, she has found it necessary to make changes.
"I've had to turn down some driving due to distance," she says.
Peltier, Sylvester and Pare all agree with Smith, who summarizes the volunteer experience by saying, "There's no feeling like knowing you're impacting someone's life."