Tyngsboro’s Gary Royal is Driver, Friend to Cancer Patients on the Road
This article is the latest in The Sun’s “Be a Volunteer” series.
TYNGSBORO -- About twice a week, Gary Royal slips into his black Toyota Avalon and leaves his home to go pick up a cancer patient. His destination? Wherever treatment awaits.
Since 2014, Royal has been a volunteer driver for the American Cancer Society Road to Recovery program, which provides transportation to and from treatment for people with cancer. Like other volunteers, the Tyngsboro resident donates his time and the use of his vehicle. Royal said a friend who is a cancer survivor provided rides for patients when he felt well enough. This stuck with Royal, who began poking around for local volunteer driver opportunities after retiring several years ago from his job as an insurance underwriting manager.
Royal, 67, said he knew some cancer patients may not be able to drive themselves to treatment.
“I had a pretty good sense that there was a pretty good need to get to their appointments and it just seemed like something I’d like to do,” he said. “It’s been very rewarding because there’s an awful lot of people that do need rides and sometimes on a frequent basis.”
Transportation can be a real pain point for some cancer patients, according to Theresa Freeman, director of communications for the American Cancer Society.
“It might be no access to a vehicle,” Freeman said. “It might just be that someone is not able to drive them (patients) at a certain time, so we want to provide that access to care and make sure people begin their cancer treatment on time and complete their cancer treatment.”
Since its inception, the Road to Recovery program has provided more than 7.5 million rides to treatment across the United States, according to Freeman. She said Royal drove 144 times last year as a volunteer.
There are just over 400 Road to Recovery drivers in Massachusetts, but the organization needs much more (especially in the western part of the state), according to Freeman. Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer driver must be at least 18 years old, have a valid driver’s license, a safe and reliable vehicle, proof of automobile insurance, and a good driving history, according to a release. The American Cancer Society provides free training to drivers and conducts criminal background, driving record, and vehicle checks.
Michele Dilley, the organization’s program manager in mission delivery, said Royal stands out to her for his compassion.
“He’s great. I’ve heard the patients that he’s driven just feel very comfortable, safe, warm as if they’d known him all their life,” she said. “There’s such an amazing disparity around transportation and people just not being able to get to their treatment. When we hear someone as kind and as friendly as Gary is being able to fulfill that need, it makes my job worthwhile.”
Over the last few years, Royal said he has met a lot of interesting people at various stages of illness. When he arrives to pick them up, he usually walks up to their front door but sometimes the patients are already waiting outside for him. Most passengers, he said, are fighting hard and have a good attitude. A fair number are seniors. Royal has learned to sense whether or not his passenger wants to talk. Sometimes they do. A few times he’s even been invited inside their home for coffee while they gather their belongings.
“It’s obviously a really trying time for them and I can tell because, almost without exception, the patients are very thankful when I drop them off at the end of the day,” he said. “Any help that I can provide at a tough time like that gives me a good feeling ... that I’m able to help someone. I feel lucky that I’m retired and have the time to do that.”
Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.