Martha Zito knows what it’s like to feel overwhelmed.
When her mother was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008, Zito became her caregiver. “I had to make all the appointments and take care of the details – the paperwork,” said Zito. “I was so busy, I felt like I didn’t have time to just love her.”
Her mother died within a few months of the diagnosis. That experience left Zito longing to help others who were in a similar situation. When she heard about the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program, she immediately volunteered to help.
Road to Recovery provides transportation to and from treatment for cancer patients who don’t have a ride or are unable to drive themselves. Volunteer drivers donate their time and the use of their cars so that patients can receive the life-saving treatments they need.
Zito’s husband, Nick Zito, is the coordinator for the Kootenai County Road to Recovery program. He, too, knows how overwhelming caregiver duties can be. His mother also was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2009. “It’s a real blessing to people in need,” he said. “This is a need that gets overlooked.”
The program doesn’t replace existing services; instead it fills in the gaps. For example, while local hospitals and medical providers may offer shuttle services, those vans, like the STA Paratransit vehicles, operate only in a limited area.
In addition, “There are patients who don’t meet the criteria for these options,” said Cynthia Rozyla, district quality of life manager for the American Cancer Society.
The need for help getting to appointments is something that Kristie Peters often hears about. Peters is a patient navigator at Cancer Care Northwest.
“I’m primarily concerned with uninsured or underinsured patients,” Peters said. “A lot of them don’t have access to transportation.”
She said she’s had patients tell her, “I’m not going to be able to get to treatment.” The strain of worrying about transportation adds stress to those whose health is already fragile.
Peters said patients undergoing chemotherapy have weakened immune systems. “Public transportation is not a good idea,” she said. “Also, patients getting chemo and radiation are prohibited from driving.”
While Road to Recovery in Kootenai County has been up and running for a while, the program is now expanding to Spokane County. “We’re seeing a real need for patients traveling between Coeur d’ Alene and Spokane,” said Rozyla. In addition, help is needed to transport patients from outlying areas like Deer Park.
Drivers use their own vehicles and only transport ambulatory patients. If patients need assistance, they may bring their caregivers with them.
“We haven’t been able to advertise the program much, because we don’t have enough drivers,” Nick Zito said.
Rozyla hopes that will change. “We’re offering training for volunteers on March 2,” she said, and noted volunteers undergo a background check and must have a clean driving record. Other than that she said, “All you need is a reliable vehicle and a compassionate heart.”
Martha Zito said she’s glad to be a part of the Road to Recovery program.
“It doesn’t only help the patients, it helps the family,” she said. “It takes one more thing off their to-do list. The experience has been wonderful.”