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VOL. 129 | NO. 79 | Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Driver of Love

Road to Recovery program provides assistance for cancer patients

By Don Wade

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For nine years, Donna Claire Newman and her red four-door Toyota Matrix have been ferrying cancer patients to their doctor and therapy appointments around Memphis.

Donna Newman chats with patient Thomas Fullwiley shortly after picking him up from an appointment at Methodist University Hospital. Newman is retiring from the American Cancer Society program Road to Recovery. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“No freeway,” Newman, 81, said. “I did enough of that in California.”

Rather, Newman seeks out scenic routes – Shady Grove is one – where she and her passenger can see “beautiful places, flowers and trees.”

Newman began volunteering through the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program for a simple and understandable reason: “People I love have had cancer and I wanted to make a contribution.”

But this week, Newman was to make her last trip as a volunteer driver. She’s retiring.

Regina Fowler, 52, has been one of her passengers for several years; since October of 2008, Fowler has received more than 100 chemotherapy treatments.

“She’s a sweet lady, a feisty little lady,” Fowler said of Newman.

And proof that this volunteer opportunity can be a good fit for a lot of people. After all, Newman was in her 70s when she got started.

“There’s no easier way to volunteer,” said Dr. Martin Fleming, who is in the Department of Surgical Oncology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and has long been involved with the American Cancer Society. “All you have to be is 18 years old and able to drive one day a month.”

One of the needs, Fleming explained, is for volunteer drivers to take residents of the American Cancer Society’s Harrah’s Hope Lodge on Union Avenue to appointments. The lodge is a temporary home away from home for cancer patients from out of town who have come here for treatment.

“The problem is, we just don’t have enough volunteers,” Fleming said.

The result is that full-time employees at the lodge then have to take away from their normal duties to drive the lodge’s van to get people to appointments.

“Just one day a month,” Fleming repeated. “Surely, there are 30 people in Memphis who will do that. It’s a sweet time for the drivers, very rewarding.”

Newman doesn’t know how many people she has transported in almost a decade of volunteering, saying, “You got a calculator?”

Over the years, there have been heartwarming moments and also heartbreaking ones. Many passengers, Newman said, shared that they were good cooks and liked talking about that. Newman says she can’t cook, but enjoys hearing the stories just the same.

“The drivers do not ask personal questions about the patients’ conditions,” Newman said. “You simply listen. Oftentimes, they’ll tell you their personal story. You listen, listen, listen, but don’t give advice.”

Fowler said of Newman, “She knows a lot about me.”

At times, Fowler has had to get to three therapy appointments per week. That’s not uncommon. The American Cancer Society screens volunteer applicants, who must have a valid driver’s license, proof of adequate automobile insurance, dependable transportation and be from 18 to 85 years of age.

Volunteers receive training and the service for patients, who do not need a physician’s referral, is free of charge. Advance notice, however, is required.

Anyone interested in volunteering, or who is a cancer patient and in need of transportation, can get more information by calling 1-800-227-2345 or by going to www.cancer.org.

Now that Newman’s about to turn loose of the steering wheel, she is hoping others will provide a helping hand.

“Please,” she said, “we need drivers.”

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