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Volunteers lend wheels, ears to cancer patients

March 14, 1999|By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff writer, Waynesboro

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - One of the hardest things Russell Irving does as a volunteer driver for the American Cancer Society is to help his patients keep their spirits up, he said.

"You have to get their mind off their troubles," said Irving, 79, of Chambersburg, Pa., one of about 20 volunteers in Franklin County who drive cancer patients to radiation and chemotherapy treatments. "They're frightened, and a lot of times they're alone."

"It's hard for them," said Irving's wife, Maxine, 70, also a volunteer driver.

Whenever possible, she takes patients' spouses or friends along so they will have someone to accompany them to the hospital.

Many cancer patients have no one to depend on or to drive them to their treatments, said Cathy Rodgers, who coordinates the volunteer program for the cancer society's office in Chambersburg. She said more than 400 patients were served by the agency last year, and many of them needed transportation.

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Most volunteer drivers are retired, Rodgers said. Many, like Russell Irving, are themselves cancer survivors. He survived prostate cancer surgery five years ago. Other volunteers have family members who died or survived cancer. Irving's first wife died from the disease.

The drivers are needed for patients who have no other means of transportation or to give their family members and friends a break from the transportation routine.

Rodgers said the drivers pay for their own gas and expenses. They transport patients to as close as Chambersburg Hospital and as far away as Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa., or The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. They wait at the hospital or clinic while the patients undergo treatment, which often leaves them ill or exhausted drivers said.

"The volunteers are a great bunch of people," Rodgers said.

"We do it because we're giving something back to the community," said Russell Irving, who signed up after retiring from the building business about 10 years ago.

Maxine Irving was a volunteer driver for the Red Cross before she joined the cancer society. She and her husband often ride together while transporting patients, she said. "We have time to do it. A lot of people don't," she said.

Ethel Neal, of Greencastle, Pa., has been a volunteer driver for six years. She said some patients welcome the opportunity to talk to someone about their illness. A former nurse's aide, Neal is used to being around people who are ill and knows how to put them at ease.

"Sometimes we talk the whole trip," she said, adding she tries to help her passengers develop a positive outlook.

Communicating with people who are gravely ill or dying comes hard to William Hollar, 62.

"It's quite an experience, believe me," he said. "Most of the people I drive are pretty depressed. I try to perk them up, tell them they look great. I try not to discuss their condition unless they do."

He said he remembers one passenger, a woman who learned on a visit to her doctor that her cancer had spread even after all of her treatments.

"She had no friends or family," Hollar said. "She said, 'I'm not going through it again.' She went home and just gave up. She died."

Rodgers said volunteer drivers are always needed at the cancer society. Anyone wishing to sign up can call 1-717-264-4412.

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