- Associated Press - Monday, February 8, 2016

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Some people might take for granted having transportation to and from doctor appointments, but not Jack Martin.

Six years ago, he began traveling regularly from his home to the Leo Jenkins Cancer Center in Greenville for treatment of Stage 4 rectal cancer. After his wife, who drove him to his appointments, died a year or so later, the American Cancer Society’s “Road to Recovery” program made it possible for Martin to get to the scans and sessions that help maintain his life.

“I’m on disability,” Martin, 54, said in a phone interview. “I can’t afford a car. My family members - they work - and it would be a terrible inconvenience for them. My wife passed away.”

Transportation is just one of many challenges cancer patients face, Martin said.

“It’s terrible, man, if you think about being in that kind of position,” he said. “I am not the kind of person to give up. Some people would say, ‘Oh well.’ … I have to do this the rest of my life.”

For about two-and-a-half years, Martin has relied on the service at least once each month. Even if he had a vehicle, the side effects of treatments present another challenge.

“Sometimes you can’t drive yourself home because you’re so sick,” he said.

Martin said he has seen inmates receive transportation to the center and felt hopeless about not having access to a resource he believes should be available for anyone undergoing treatment.

“I was frustrated because prisoners could get a ride to chemotherapy, and I couldn’t get a ride,” Martin said. “I had to do something because my mother-in-law was taking me, but then she couldn’t because she was having health issues. My father and mother are dead; my sister lives in Raleigh. It would be a heck of an inconvenience. … What are you going to do - get sick, sit there and die?”

Though Martin takes chemotherapy pills so he does not need to travel as frequently for infusions, he still relies on the free service.

Traveling by bus or cab comes at a cost, Martin said, and those options do not provide the chance to communicate directly with a driver who knows and understands his needs. Through Road to Recovery, Martin was paired with Ronald Michalowicz, the area coordinator for the Lenoir County ACS program.

Michalowicz is someone with whom he can relate, something that helps with the trips, Martin said.

“We are pretty good friends now, and I found out stuff about him that blew my mind,” Martin said. “We really have a personal connection.”

Like Martin, Michalowicz was introduced to the program by people at the Leo Jenkins Cancer Center. He has served as a volunteer for about three years and in 2015 logged more than 3,000 miles by driving people from Lenoir County to Vidant Medical Center and fulfilling requests for the eastern North Carolina area, including Greenville and Pitt County.

“Part of it is because I am a cancer survivor,” said Michalowicz, who provides transportation for cancer patients two or three times a week. “I was fortunate. I had Stage 3 bladder cancer and severe complications after. I had three forms of sepsis, developed a pulmonary embolism during surgery.”

Michalowicz said he felt that if he survived, he “needed to do something to give back to the people who helped me and help others in a similar situation to what I was in.”

He contacted the program, learned it was in dire need of volunteers and has since maintained his role as a driver. His experience better positions him to assist others as they fight for their lives, he said.

“I had my bladder and prostate removed surgically at UNC-Chapel Hill in October of 2012,” he said. “I had to rely on my wife. … My wife is my caregiver; she was driving me for chemo and other hospitalizations that I had during that time.”

Michalowicz said he is fortunate because his wife of 46 years was able to help in his cancer fight. But not everyone has a support system available.

That’s one reason Michalowicz volunteers as a driver. He also spends time as a patient representative at Lenoir County Hospital, assisting patients who have home health care available with medical needs after hospitalization. But others must rely on friends, family, acquaintances, church members or Road to Recovery, he said.

“In eastern North Carolina, public transportation in many instances, because of the rural areas, is non-existent,” he said. “It’s important for Road to Recovery to ensure that they are able to get to the treatment they need.”

Even those with a family support system face barriers, according to Denise Hockaday, senior manager of community engagement for ACS.

“Some people’s family members have to work to maintain insurance,” she said. “Some don’t have transportation. Who wants to go to chemotherapy on a bus? There are a number of reasons why people need a ride.”

That’s why the transportation Michalowicz and other volunteers provide is essential, Hockaday said. But more volunteers are needed.

About 62 percent of requests for transportation go unmet due to a shortage of volunteers, she said.

Drivers are required to have a valid driver’s license, access to a safe and reliable vehicle, a good driving record and proof of automobile insurance. Hockaday said a background check is conducted for interested candidates. Volunteers also must complete training prior to driving for Road to Recovery.

Hockaday said the program seeks positive individuals who look to make a difference in people’s lives.

“Some cancer survivors are wonderful drivers because they can relate,” she said.

Although volunteers with flexible schedules are ideal, Hockaday said one hour a month can make a difference. There is no limit on the amount of time a volunteer can invest.

The program is a stress reliever for patients who often travel great distances for care, said Judy Koutlas, the coordinator of cancer care navigation at Vidant Health. Koutlas organizes and secures rides for patients in need.

“As cancer care navigators, we assist patients with identifying barriers to get access to their care,” she said. “If they can’t drive and don’t have a vehicle or transportation, that is a big barrier for them.”

Koutlas said the program reaches individuals regardless of their location in its 29-county service area.

“What’s really nice about it,” she said, “is that there is a real benefit for the patient and volunteer to have a real connection.”

___

Information from: The Daily Reflector, https://www.reflector.com

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