Every week, Sally Brown becomes caregiver to a cancer patient she may not see again. Some don’t say a word to her. Others pour out their hearts. Some share how happy they are with their treatment; others, how cancer has led to depression.
As a volunteer with Road to Recovery program, an American Cancer Society initiative, 83-year-old Brown has been giving cancer patients free rides to treatment for more than two decades.
The national transportation program is offered to cancer patients who have no other means of transportation or who are unable to drive themselves to treatment.
Brown is one of more than 800 trained volunteers nationwide who have helped more than 490,000 patients across the country by providing over 9 million rides to and from cancer-related medical appointments.
Patients learn about Road to Recovery through other patients, doctors or social workers. They request rides online or by contacting their local ACS office three days before their appointment.
Brown, a resident of Ramsey County, Minnesota, signed up as a volunteer ACS driver in 1994. She had been helping the society with fundraising and was exploring other volunteer opportunities.
“I liked the flexible timing. You can drive once a week or three times a week,” said Brown, who owned a Lexus for 12 years, which she replaced with a Honda CRV last year.
Interested volunteers undergo a background check and complete online training, all of which takes about two weeks, said Leah Hegg, ACS program manager.
“The training comprises safe driving, introduction to the website and customer service,” she said.
Drivers accept rides through a centralized computer program, which identifies locations, dates and appointment schedules. That’s a far cry from the way things operated when Brown started.
“It was all (by) phone when I joined,” said Brown, who is also the coordinator for drivers in Minnesota.
She still makes old-fashioned phone calls to fill last-minute requests for rides.
Brown’s late husband was a physician with the U.S. Air Force. He did his residency in ophthalmology at the Mayo Clinic before the couple settled in Roseville, Minnesota, and raised their family of three daughters and a son.
“Heard of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown? She is my daughter,” said the proud mother.
Brown also happens to be a “lucky cancer patient.” She was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. “I didn’t need any radiation or chemotherapy. I got a lumpectomy done,” she said, adding that she was OK the next day, as her family hovered around.
“Cancer taught me to be more thankful for every day that I have,” she said.
St. Paul resident Susan Hoppe has been using the volunteer driver service for more than a year. Once a week, Hoppe is driven to St. John’s Cancer Center in Maplewood, Minnesota. She discovered the ACS project during an online search for free taxi services.
“I believe people like Sally Brown are angels,” Hoppe said. “I feel blessed. I wish more people knew about this.”
Brown has lost count of the rides she has given. “Ah, I don’t have a clue,” she said. But she’s willing to guess.
By giving one or two rides a week, she figures it’s been roughly 3,000 rides.
Brown understands that most patients don’t want to share too much on those rides. But she has one exception, a breast-cancer patient she’s been driving to appointments for more than a year.
The woman is younger than Brown, and a vegan. They often discuss food. Brown is happy to listen to her passenger’s heavier realities, such as the constant pain she must endure.
“She has a very different life,” Brown said.
Brown doesn’t wish she were paid. Her patients’ appreciation is the best reward, she said, one that has kept her going all these years.
When patients offer her money, “I tell them they can give it to the ACS.”
How long does she think she will keep driving?
“I can go on for many years,” Brown said, grinning. “But when you are 85, ACS says that you are done.”