SURREY — Bill Ruppel clicked on his seatbelt, started up his silver Honda Element and began another shift as a much-needed volunteer driver.
“One of the things about doing this job for a day is you feel pretty grateful at the end of it,” he said as his vehicle motored east toward North Delta and, ultimately, BC Cancer Agency’s Fraser Valley Centre at Surrey Memorial Hospital.
“You stay at a clinic like that for any amount of time and see all the people coming and going, you gain perspective on life in general, mortality and all that, how important health is.”
Ruppel, a South Surrey resident, is with Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society, a year-old organization that makes life a little easier for people coping with chemo, radiation and other cancer-related appointments at clinics across Metro Vancouver.
A similar ride program was operated locally by Canadian Cancer Society, but, in a cost-cutting move, that one came to a sudden stop in the fall of 2015.
Thankfully, for many cancer patients who rely on such rides, some of that program’s existing volunteers kept the service rolling under an entirely new framework, and Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society was born.
“At some point, we can all use a lift,” notes the society’s glossy, green-on-white brochure, a copy of which Darlene Razzo picked up at a cancer clinic not long ago.
The longtime North Delta resident, diagnosed with ovarian cancer in December, called the number because she, indeed, needed a lift to her many radiation appointments – 25 in total.
“I just discovered the service,” Razzo said as she sat in the passenger seat of Ruppel’s vehicle. “When I saw the pamphlet I thought, oh, this would be a real lifesaver. I had no idea there was such a thing.”
Razzo had begun her radiation treatments two weeks previous, and they continued five days a week.
“I’ve used the service quite a bit,” she explained. “It’s very helpful, and because I don’t feel well a lot of the time, I’m so thankful to have this transportation. All the drivers are so friendly.”
Razzo, who recently retired from working at a dry-cleaning business in Boundary Park, has a license to drive, but she’s been feeling very tired of late, due to all that radiation.
“It’s not great to be out driving,” she said. “I could take the bus right off 116th, but I chose to go this way. It’s just easier. I also developed vertigo over the last six months, which prevented me from driving. I was pretty much bedridden for three months. It hit me all at once.”
The lift service is free, and donations are welcomed, but not solicited.
For their fuel costs, the society gives its volunteer drivers 41 cents per kilometre.
“The biggest challenge we have as a group is probably raising money, although we’ve had some nice gifts, in the form of gas and money, from the Rotary club and companies like Chevron,” said Ruppel, who became a volunteer driver about a year ago and has since joined the society’s board of directors as driver dispatch co-ordinator.
A retired Air Canada pilot, Ruppel found himself with a bit of extra time – that is, when he’s not out riding his motorcycle.
“I had a little scrape with cancer back in around 1995, so I’m sensitive to the needs of patients,” he said. “I was just looking for a place to give back and donate some time. I do typically three or four drives per week myself.”
Another challenge for the group is having enough drivers to keep up with demand in certain areas, including Surrey.
“We’re hoping to solicit some new drivers who live in our Surrey service area, the northern portion of the city, because we’re finding that we have typically quite a few patients who live in Surrey but not as many drivers,” Ruppel said.
“So we’re having to bring drivers from afar to get to the patient’s home, to their appointment, and then back home. Some of those drivers are coming from places like Langley and White Rock, so in the interest of efficiency and money-saving, we’d like some of our drivers to be more strategically located closer to patients in Surrey.”
Five-hundred trips a month is not unusual for the society to manage, and it costs them approximately $15,000 in monthly fuel reimbursements for the drivers, Ruppel said.
“Typically in the north end of Surrey, we do around 60 trips per month, so that’s about 15 trips or so a week,” he noted.
“A lot of people need to head into Vancouver for their treatments or their appointments, and some will be closer to home here in Surrey. That’s pretty typical for patients from this area.”
The society is interested in recruiting people who can drive to Vancouver, Ruppel added, because not everyone can, or will, do that.
“With traffic the way it is, some of our people are reluctant to do that drive,” he said. “Some of our volunteers are getting on in years and don’t want to take that chance on the roads. We’re also looking for folks who can, at the bare minimum, donate at least a full day a week to this service, ideally more than that.
“There are some appointments that are as long as three and four hours, so that four-hour appointment is a tipping point where we’ll aim to get somebody else to come pick up that person for the trip home, rather than a person waiting around for that length of time.”
For people looking to get involved as volunteer drivers, conditions include a mandatory criminal reference check and adequate third-party liability vehicle insurance. For full details, Ruppel steers would-be drivers to the Volunteer section of the group’s website, at volunteercancerdrivers.ca.
“When people understand what we do, they’re willing to step up and help out, it’s just a matter of getting the word out to people,” Ruppel said.
“Same thing with funds, it’s a no-brainer. We’re simply getting people to their appointments and back to their homes, and a lot of people just don’t have the wherewithal to do that, or the physical health to do that.”