The transmission on Vanessa Nuñez’s Volkswagen Jetta had just broken when her grandfather was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma.
Worried public transportation wouldn’t be reliable enough to take her grandfather from their home near Homestead to Baptist Hospital in Kendall for treatment, she turned to the American Cancer Society.
They suggested she sign her grandfather, Domingo Nuñez, 76, up for their Road to Recovery program — a free service that matches cancer patients with a volunteer driver who brings them to and from the hospital for treatment.
“It was such as blessing,” said Vanessa Nuñez.
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There are roughly 2,100 newly diagnosed cancer patients who depend on Road to Recovery annually in Miami. Currently the program has about 60 volunteer drivers-- ideally the organization would like to have about 100 drivers to meet demand.
“A doctor told me one day ‘For me to treat the patient they need to come to the treatment,’ ” Mara Chavannes, patient navigator for the American Cancer Society. “If the patient can’t come to treatment, how will they receive it?”
Road to Recovery is sometimes the only means of transportation for cancer patients who don’t have a vehicle and those who may feel too sick to drive home after treatment alone.
“Getting to treatment can be half the battle on the road to recovery,” Chavannes said.
Kimberly Bradshaw recently gave Joanna Zika, 35, a ride from Jackson Memorial Hospital after her daily radiation treatment for stage II lymphoma.
“It’s nice to have the one-on-one and you can actually develop a bond with the driver. So that’s what appealed to me,” said Zika, who had taken public transportation from her home in Cutler Bay to the hospital before signing up for the service. “After I am cured I’d love to volunteer.”
During their trip, Bradshaw told Zika about her own experience caring for her daughter Rochelle, who died in 2004 at 15 of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia.
“She’s with me when I drive patients,” said Bradshaw of Richmond Heights, adding her daughter’s memory helped motivate her to become a driver.
“I never got to drive her, because after her bone marrow transplant she stayed in the hospital,” said Bradshaw.
The criteria to become a volunteer driver for Road to Recovery includes having valid driver’s license, a clean driving record and reliable transportation. The organization will work with volunteers in finding ride times that work with their schedules.
“You don’t have to be available all the time,” Chavannes said. “You can do services once a week or once a month.”
Guillermo Peña, a Doral resident , has been volunteering for nearly two years, said being a drivers has been a “very rewarding experience.”
“The patients are extremely appreciative,” said Peña, who began volunteering with the Road to Recovery service after learning about it at an American Cancer Society event.
Peña’s own stint with thyroid cancer nearly a decade ago was part of the reason he wanted to become a driver.
On a recent trip, Peña drove Joan Hospedales, 59, to Jackson. The pair exchanged stories about radiation treatment and their experiences battling cancer.
At the end of the ride Hospedales turned to Peña and thanked him for the ride.
”I can’t drive myself,” said Hospedales, a Miami Gardens resident who is receiving treatment for breast cancer. “Without him I would have to take three buses to get to the hospital.”
For nearly three months Domingo Nuñez was driven to a Kendall hospital by Richard Tuttle.
The two developed a bond over that time and would often talk about their families and swapped stories during their rides.
“It’s a blessing from God. Thanks to the American Cancer Society for sending me this gentleman,” said Domingo Nuñez in an interview before his death in August. “I’m glad we have him.”
Tuttle, encourages others to become drivers for the service and says an ideal driver is someone who can connect with patients.
“It helps people relieve their stress and not have to worry about transportation,” said Tuttle, a Cutler Bay resident. “They don’t need someone to feel sorry for them but to have a good positive outlook on life. Someone who is a good listener, not just a good talker,” and someone who has a flexible schedule.
For more information about the Road to Recovery call 1-800- 227-2345 or 305-779-2844.