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a driving mission

by Ann Farrell | May 13, 2005

If you really want to get something done, ask the busiest person you know. The volunteer drivers for the Canadian Cancer Society in Toronto are a case in point.

These women and men take cancer patients to and from their hospital appointments – chemotherapy, radiation, and visits to their specialists. They are volunteers who fit this service into their own busy lives. Some of them are involved with more than one volunteer organization. Scheduling has to be one of their major skills.

For their part, sick passengers know they can rely on the drivers to be punctual, caring and – like London taxi-drivers – apparently able to locate the most-hard-to-find addresses. This is important, as cancer patients, perhaps more than most, are stressed out. Some of them are uncertain what the future may hold for them.

There is no charge to the patients for this service. Each week, they are given a treatment schedule and the names of the drivers who will take them to and from their appointments. For those without cars, or friends and relatives who can drive them, this is not only a terrific service, but it also frees them from one more worry.

No matter how bad the weather is, or what traffic snarls face them, these drivers give cheery support to people who are in need of all the help they can get. The drivers comment that, surprisingly, they hardly ever encounter riders who are “difficult” – on the contrary, they are described as “upbeat.” Perhaps because the driver is not a friend or relative, the cancer patient feels a need to put on a brave face.

An interesting aspect about these drivers is that, apart from all the other things they do, many of them somehow find the time to have hobbies, some of which are quite unusual. It’s hard to believe they can squeeze these into their hectic timetables, but they do, whether it’s needlepoint or figure skating.

Driver Maureen Burt is a stay-at-home mom and a marathon runner. “My husband and I could do it [afford my not working outside the home], and it was our choice. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving my children in someone else’s care,” she says. Before marriage, she worked as an executive assistant.

Although she’s not in the workforce now, she continues to be just as busy, still managing schedules. She is supporting her teenage daughters in their school activities, in addition to running the home. “My husband doesn’t have to do laundry,” she says. She could also be putting in time at a food bank or an out-of-the-cold shelter. She believes it is her responsibility to give back to the community and make the time to do so.

Running was how she met her husband. Not currently in training, Maureen believes in exercise and works out regularly. “It’s good for my health, for weight control, and just to feel good. You only have to walk to the corner, and already it cheers you up,” she comments. She encourages her two teenage daughters to be active and the family skis together. Recently they helped her on a breast cancer fundraising weekend. The next volunteer generation in the making.

Maureen got into driving cancer patients when, one day, she noticed a sign at Sunnybrook Hospital. She was visiting a patient and saw this sign: “I need a ride to cancer treatment.”

“There’s been a lot of cancer in my family, and it really caught my eye,” she says. “I responded to it, and have been an enthusiastic driver ever since.”

Schedules are tight. Occasionally, there’s a problem – perhaps a patient is held up, or something else interferes with pick-up and drop-off times. It may mean the driver doesn’t show up as quickly as usual for the pick-up and the patient has to wait to be taken home. It doesn’t happen often, and eventually the driver does turn up, Meanwhile the patients know they need not worry, The driver will come as soon as possible.

With cell phones, liaison between the hospital, drivers and their central dispatcher is always maintained. In the hospital’s reception area, there are plenty of chairs, a coffee shop and other distractions, not the least of which is an opportunity to people-watch until the driver turns up.

Maureen is the sort of person who likes juggling her commitments and is not prone to panic. She drives two days a week, but that doesn’t mean any of her others are free. Sometimes, she finds time to sit down and read. However, helping others is her first priority, even if her day book is crammed.

It’s been much the same story for Sandy Booth, who is settling into a new home – her first – in Pickering. She hopes she can still do her driving to and from Toronto hospitals, but a current stumbling block is the dirty condition in which she found her new home. Right now, she admits driving must take second place to scrubbing and painting. “I have the hands to show for it,” she says ruefully.

Her inspiration to become a driver, she says, started one day when she sat in Princess Margaret’s large reception area looking at all the people there. She realized that nearly all of them were connected with cancer in some way – either as patients or as their friends and relatives. She saw the drivers coming in to pick up their passengers and knew immediately she wanted to help, too.

Sandy grew up on a farm and has that country-bred belief in being a contributing part of the community. As a teenager, she belonged to the 4H in Canada – a farm organization that puts helping others at the top of its priorities. Like a number of drivers, cancer has touched her family and circle of friends, giving her a good understanding of the emotional needs of these patients.

While sewing has been her job professionally, it has also been her hobby. However, Sandy has always found time to volunteer in various organizations since her teenage years on the farm. She says that, with the new home, it’s going to be a challenge to fit the driving in, but she is determined to do so. She feels the patients give back to her as much as she gives to them.

Meanwhile, she recently came upon some abandoned drapes that had once hung at the windows of the Royal York Hotel. They were too long for her needs, but out came her scissors and machine, and a wonderful buy became tailor-made for her needs.

Unlike Maureen, Sandy remains a country girl at heart. She grew up in a small community where meeting other’s needs was the natural thing to do. She comments that, when city people now move into smaller communities, some of them try to impose city-style living on their new surroundings. “It doesn’t really work, and both the newcomers and the old families can feel at odds with each other,” she says.

Sandy may wind up driving locally because of the time that would be involved in commuting, If possible, Sandy hopes she can keep on with her city patients. “I’ll really try and make the time.”

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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