Care for a drive?


A voluntary scheme to drive oncology patients to appointments has benefits for both parties, writes JOANNE HUNT

IT’S 8.50AM on a July morning in the north county Dublin seaside town of Balbriggan, and Damien and Lisa Walker are sipping mugs of tea on their doorstep. The couple are making the most of rare sunshine as they await the familiar sight of a silver car pulling up outside.

A few months ago, they wouldn’t have known its driver, but since Damien was diagnosed last year with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow, Irish Cancer Society volunteer Stephen Walsh has been a godsend, easing the stress of getting Damien to and from hospital appointments.

“It would take the guts of two hours to get in and another two to get back, on public transport, leaving aside the time spent in the hospital,” recalls Damien of his near weekly appointments.

“When you come out after chemo and you’re not feeling the best, you’re tired, and on public transport, you don’t know how you might be feeling – particularly for Lisa, it’s quite nerve-wracking, wondering how I’ll be.”

Arriving just before 9am, there are friendly hellos before all are belted up and en route to a 10am appointment at St James’s Hospital.

“I was diagnosed last October,” explains Damien from the front passenger seat. “It was a big shock, yes, a big shock. It was the last thing I was expecting to hear.

“I was feeling no symptoms up to that, it was just a routine blood test showed up something, and then the doctors did a follow-up and discovered what it was.”

Life has since turned upside down.

“I would say between October and February I was in hospital at least once a week, so at least 16 or 17 times. I’ve probably been in 30 times in total at this stage,” he says.

For the couple, who don’t have their own transport, making the 70km round trip on various forms of public transport had been exhausting.

“We had the choice of going to the train station, which is a 25-minute walk, and then we’d have to get a train into the city and then a Luas, or else we could get a bus from the end of the road and then a Luas,” says Damien. But now all that hassle is gone.

Driver Stephen Walsh is a volunteer with the Care to Drive programme. Set up in 2008, the programme recruits, trains and Garda vets volunteers to drive oncology patients to their appointments, explains Irish Cancer Society patient support services manager Olwyn Ryan.

The service is aimed at those who have no transport, whose families don’t live nearby, those who have no immediate family support or those whose treatment is so aggressive that they are advised not to drive. Modelled on a similar programme in Canada, 235 drivers have so far this year transported 199 patients to and from 1,294 hospital appointments.

When Stephen was given the opportunity to take a redundancy package in 2009, he remembered hearing about Care to Drive and decided to make inquiries. “I was going to have some time and I wanted to do something that I really found was worthwhile,” he says.

His father had died of cancer six years previously and he had had “a minor scare” himself too, so volunteering with the scheme also has a personal aspect for him.

“It’s a very practical thing that you can do for someone,” he says. “I was really amazed so many people are using the service. You almost assume that people have a way to get to hospital, but the number of people you come across who don’t . . . they were just making bus journeys and train journeys. I was really surprised at that.”

All volunteers undergo a one-day training course covering health and safety, communication and listening skills, as well as what to do in an emergency. Drivers need a full clean licence and the time to do at least one drive a month, for which a contribution is made to their petrol costs.

“The main thing is that they have empathy for the client they are driving,” explains Ryan.

The good relationship between Damien and Stephen is evident, as conversation moves from Stephen’s recent trip to Poznan to Damien’s memories of swimming in Loughshinny as a child.

“I’ve driven Damien a number of times now,” says Stephen. “We have a good rapport. A friendship even, I would say.”

Damien will call Stephen about 15 minutes before he needs to be picked up for the return journey. His wife Lisa encourages others to use the service.

“It’s peace of mind when you are worrying about your partner . . . it puts your mind at ease that they are being looked after. It might seem like a small thing to someone else, but it’s really big when you are in this situation to have [transport] looked after.

Damien says, “I’d advise people to check it out. For us, it could have been a big stressful thing to deal with on top of everything else. You’re dealing with treatment and medications and coming to terms with the diagnosis and trying to get on with it. It’s one less thing to worry about.”

To find out more about the service or to volunteer, call Gail on 01 2310 566 or email

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