HIGH POINT, N.C. (AP) — For the past six years, Beverly Serafin has played a key role in helping area cancer patients fight their disease.

She's not a doctor, nor a nurse, nor a pharmacist, nor a medical researcher. She doesn't even schedule the patients' appointments. All she does is drive — and she doesn't even get paid for it.

Serafin, a 65-year-old retired schoolteacher who lives in High Point, is one of a small number of volunteers who drive for High Point Regional's oncology transportation services program, which transports cancer patients to and from their treatments and follow-up medical appointments.

"I feel like I can do something worthwhile since I'm retired," Serafin says. "It gives a little more meaning to my day and my life. I'm just helping people in need."

It may be meaningful to Serafin, but it's absolutely critical for the patients she assists.

"These are life-saving treatments that our patients are in need of, and some patients have no other means of transportation," says Trena Wilson, executive assistant for the oncology program, who oversees the transportation program in conjunction with the health system's volunteer services division. "They may not have a vehicle or they may not have a driver to get them here, and that delays their treatment."

A good example of that is Jeff Shields, a 59-year-old High Point man undergoing treatment for liver cancer that has spread to his left lung. Unable to drive himself, Shields relies on the oncology transportation services program to shuttle him to and from his chemotherapy treatments and other appointments at Hayworth Cancer Center.

"It's so nice to have this program available," Shields says. "These volunteers are people who are taking their own time to help someone. They have their own issues to deal with, yet they make the time to help people they don't even know."

The program faces a crisis, however, as more volunteer drivers are needed.

"We currently have 23 active drivers on our list, but only about 10 of those drive consistently," Wilson says. "We've started a campaign to try and recruit new drivers, because the larger the pool of volunteers, the more opportunities we have to find someone who can bring patients to their appointments."

On some days, Wilson says, there might be as many as seven or eight patients who need transportation, which stretches the ranks of volunteer drivers pretty thin. Serafin says she has transported as many as three patients in one day, and she sometimes drives every day of the week, an indication of how much of a need there is for more volunteer drivers.

"It can vary from day to day," Serafin says, "but there've been times I've had to do a lot of driving."

When no volunteer driver is available, the oncology transportation program has funds to arrange for the patient to take a taxi or catch a city bus to an appointment, according to Wilson. Those funds are limited, however, so she's hoping to find more volunteers to fill the void.

Volunteer drivers must go through High Point Regional's volunteer services program; must be between the ages of 25 and 75; must have a valid driver's license and a properly working vehicle with proof of insurance; must pass a risk screening, which includes a background check, insurance verification and license verification; and must have access to email.

The email access is required because that's how volunteers sign up for specific patients and appointments, Wilson says. Coordinators email a list of patients who need a ride — and when they need it — and volunteers fill in the slots of the times they're able and willing to drive.

"One thing to point out is that our drivers are only responsible for curbside to curbside service for our patients," Wilson says. "They're not required to lift the patient into or out of a wheelchair. The patient must be ambulatory and free of anesthesia for our drivers to drive them."

In addition to meeting a specific need for patients, Wilson says volunteer drivers often establish a relationship with the patients they transport, which meets another, often unspoken need.

"I've heard from several drivers who say they are the only human contact a patient may have all day, outside of their appointment, and sometimes they develop very close relationships," she says. "Sometimes a patient just wants someone to talk to, and they don't have anybody else."

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Information from: High Point Enterprise, http://www.hpenews.com