Big Isle volunteers drive cancer patients to appointments


About once a week, Geri Eckert, a Keauhou retiree, drives cancer patients to their treatments or doctor’s appointments.

During the ride, Eckert often shares her story, with the desire that it brings her passengers hope and comfort. She is a cancer survivor.

“It’s a lonely, terrible disease. At times, it can be hard to share your feelings and emotions. It can also feel like no one understands,” she said.

Four and a half years ago, while living in San Francisco, Eckert battled a rare, terminal cancer that caused a blockage of the vena cava, a vein that moves blood from the body to the heart. When diagnosed, doctors said she had about 30 days to live. She proved them wrong.

Besides having two stent procedures, Eckert went through more than a year of “the worst chemotherapy and radiation treatment.” She lost 65 pounds, felt sick and weak all the time, and experienced chemo brain, a common side effect in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, often described as “mental fog.”

Prior to being diagnosed with cancer, Eckert said she was never the type of person to ask for help. But cancer made her so sick that it brought to her knees and treatment was humiliating. Her daily mantra was “keep breathing.” Luckily, Eckert had family and friends who could help. She knows others are not so fortunate.

In November 2009, after beating cancer, she moved to the Big Island, a place she has loved and visited since 1971. It was a dream come true for Eckert, who appreciates the island’s family feel and strong sense of community. She made it a point to get involved and now volunteers with several organizations.

This year, Eckert joined Road to Recovery, a free service offered nationwide by the American Cancer Society in which volunteers transport people with cancer to and from their scheduled medical appointments.

She is among the 10 drivers who generously donate their time, and the use of their personal vehicles, to help ensure that people with cancer get the lifesaving treatments they need, said Ann Mayeda, senior representative in community engagement for ACS.

Most of the drivers live in Kona, and oftentimes, do not want to drive outside of their district. So, there’s a great need for more volunteer representing the different communities in West Hawaii to help their neighbors in need. In particular, ACS is seeking those willing to help transport patients living in North and South Kohala, Ka‘u and Hamakua, Mayeda said.

Getting patients to their appointments and treatments is an integral part of treating cancer, but finding transportation can be challenging for some. Public transportation or a lift from family members or friends is not always available. Many cancer patients require daily or weekly treatment over a period of months.

Mayeda has been told anecdotally that some cancer patients, including those living in more rural parts of the island such as Ocean View and South Point, have, at times, forgone their appointments in Kona because of this hardship.

“Road to Recovery helps fill the gap that family, friends, county Office of Aging and other organizations cannot provide to cancer patients. It is available on an as needed basis, after all other transportation options have been exhausted,” she added.

This year, ACS is estimating it has served 505 cancer patients, 227 of whom live in West Hawaii. From January through September, the organization provided 32 rides through Road to Recovery, Mayeda said. She did not know the exact number of requests received or rides denied to date.

To arrange transportation, cancer patients contact the ACS hotline at 800-227-2345 as soon as they know they will need a ride. An advance notice of four days is required, Mayeda said.

ACS coordinates Road to Recovery, from recruitment, screening and training of volunteer drivers to scheduling transportation pickups. A volunteer coordinator does the scheduling, taking in account the drivers preferences and works to make the most efficient use of the their time, Mayeda said.

Volunteers must be 18 or older, possess a good driving record and have a serviceable vehicle. They’re tasked with transporting cancer patients to and from scheduled treatment appointments only. They may not give medical advice, but are to contact the nearest medical facility or call 911 in case of emergency, according to ACS.

To volunteer or for more information, call Christine Hinds, ACS mission specialist, at 432-9162.