Henry Dill has met many people as a volunteer driver for the American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery program, but one woman made a particular impression on him. "As soon as she got in the van -- her eyes and her voice -- she resembled my mother," he recalled.
Mr. Dill had picked the patient up in Greensburg and was taking her to an appointment in Pittsburgh. They began talking and as they did "the illness itself tended to go away," at least for the duration of their drive.
After having made several trips together, Mr. Dill continues to be close to the woman and occasionally visits her, including holiday visits when he dresses like a leprechaun on Saint Patrick's Day and as Santa Claus at Christmas.
His mother developed cancer in 1976 and died in 1979, Mr. Dill said, and that is one reason he volunteers with the society.
"In life in general you run into people afflicted by the illness. If effects everybody. Your friends, your family. I thought this would be a good way to give back," he said.
Mr. Dill is one of 20 volunteer drivers on the Westmoreland County program's list, but only five or six of them take most of the patient requests, said Dianne Ostop, volunteer coordinator. The number of requests has been steadily increasing during her five-year tenure, and she would welcome more driver volunteers. To learn more, or to volunteer, call 1-800-227-2345.
Scheduling is flexible and any amount of availability is welcome, even one day a month.
"Treatments Monday through Friday for six weeks is the standard protocol for most types of radiation for most cancers. If someone calls and says 'I can do a Wednesday,' that Wednesday helps tremendously."
While most of her drivers are retired, Ms. Ostop occasionally plans around someone's work schedule. Sometimes one driver will take a patient and another will pick the patient up.
Mr. Dill said once he commits "I free my whole day up. The doctor may be late, or the appointment might not go as scheduled. If the time is shorter, you have the rest of the day to do what you please. If it runs over, you didn't make any other plans so you're not pressured."
The majority of Ms. Ostop's requests come from seniors who no longer drive or cannot due to the effects of their treatment. But patients come in all ages, the very young accompanied by a caregiver. The most common destinations are doctor appointments and chemotherapy or radiation treatments, in Greensburg, Latrobe or Pittsburgh. But Mr. Dill is scheduled to make a rare trip to the Cleveland Clinic with a young male patient.
Drivers may occasionally use a cancer society van but often prefer to drive their own cars. They receive no reimbursement for their time, gas or parking, and are not permitted to accept gifts if offered. They undergo extensive background checks, which include their driving records. Training follows.
Drivers are required to have auto insurance, said Emily Lloyd, American Cancer Society mission delivery specialist. Road to Recovery in Western Pennsylvania counties are among the programs she oversees, and all could use more volunteers. Should drivers be involved in a fender bender, damage would be covered by their personal insurance. In the case of a lawsuit arising from bodily damage -- which Ms. Lloyd said is "incredibly, incredibly rare" -- the driver's insurance would also be responsible, but should the amount go above available coverage the cancer society would step in and back that individual.
Ms. Ostop, 64, of Greensburg is a survivor of breast cancer which recurred five times. She said she was fortunate to have people who could take her to treatments.
"There are a lot of people out there who don't, and we tend to forget that. I've been through all this, and I realize how important it is to get to all of the treatments and appointments. I've sat in the waiting room with seniors and heard them say, 'I don't know how I'm going to get here tomorrow.' "
Mr. Dill, 55, of East Huntingdon was already a volunteer for the Make-a-Wish Foundation when he saw a story in a newspaper three years ago about Road to Recovery. He'd been employed as a dispatcher in a stone quarry before a series of back surgeries forced him to take a disability retirement.
"I'd worked every day since I was 18," he said, and was becoming depressed at home. His volunteer work gets him out among other people.
"It's a blessing for me to be able to help. If I was sitting around doing nothing, I would be feeling wasteful."
Mr. Dill recalled taking an older gentleman who lived by himself in Jeannette and used a walker to his first appointment after having been diagnosed.
"I could see he was uptight and nervous. He clutched a handful of papers and didn't know what was going to happen. His sister lived far away, he had no children and his wife was out of the picture.
"All we're required to do is pick them up and take them home. For some reason I could see that he was scared and asked 'Would you like me to stay with you?' 'Would you please?' he answered.
"One of the biggest worries on his mind was how he was going to get home, which I find is very common. I assured him I'd take him. That was when I realized how much of a relief this is for these people."
Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.