When the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic reached Ontario in late March, 2020, Ron Howard was told that his volunteer gig, driving cancer patients for treatment, was being temporarily suspended. But Ron didn’t stop driving.
Because chemotherapy suppresses the body’s immune response, cancer patients were thought to be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. The Canadian Cancer Society decided that the risk to a cancer patient of riding in a van driven by a volunteer, was simply too high. This decision was not surprising. The government of Ontario had declared a state of emergency and the economy was in lockdown.
Ron knew that there were a lot of cancer patients who had no way of getting to the hospital on a regular basis. These people depended on him. So, Ron decided to go “independent” and offer his services directly. As a long-time volunteer driver, he knew people working in the treatment programs at the hospitals he visited most often. Ron gave his contact information to the hospital staff and told them that if they came across a patient who needed transportation to the hospital, they should call him.
Initially, I was appalled by Ron’s decision to keep driving cancer patients. My own volunteer work, serving meals to the homeless in a church basement, was suspended when Ontario went into lockdown. I accepted the logic of the public health authorities that social distancing was the way to slow transmission of the virus. Ron was a renegade. But the more I talked to Ron and heard why he kept driving, the more it seemed that Ron was actually a hero.
“The hospitals didn’t cancel the chemotherapy appointments”, said Ron. “They kept them going. Those people still had to get to their appointments”.
“Weren’t you afraid you might infect them?” I said. “Cancer patients are supposed to be very vulnerable to the virus.”
“Hell no,” said Ron. “I didn’t have the virus and I didn’t know anyone who did.”
Ron’s logic was clear. The health risk of a cancer patient contracting corona virus while riding to the hospital in Ron’s car was lower than the health risk to the same patient if the patient missed his cancer treatments. Ron isn’t employed by the Cancer Society. He is an individual volunteer. He drives his own van. Since the pandemic started, he has paid for his own gas.
Ron feels that his obligations are to the people he drives and to his conscience. He is keenly aware that he has to live with himself.
Ron was not the only volunteer driver who wanted to continue driving cancer patients during the pandemic. A story by Nathan Taylor which appeared in Orillia Matters on April 11, 2020 quotes a conversation with John Cropper, another volunteer driver. Cropper said that he thought about driving cancer patients at his own expense after the Wheels of Hope program in the Orillia area was suspended. But the article said that the Cancer Society recommended against drivers continuing to drive independently. An official, speaking on behalf of the Cancer Society, explained the reasoning behind the suspension of the program. She said that the risks to both the cancer patients and the volunteers of contracting COVID were too high. She noted that many of the volunteers were seniors who might develop serious complications if they were infected by coronavirus.
When I spoke to Ron in October of 2020, he told me that he had driven patients to hundreds of appointments since he started driving as a volunteer. He told me that he works five days a week and rarely takes time off. He drives between two and five patients each day to the hospitals on the western edges of Toronto, including Credit Valley, Brampton Civic, Oakville Trafalgar and Hamilton. It is what he has done with his life for the past five years.
Before the pandemic, Ron’s wife, Joan, told me about Ron’s volunteer work. On the basis of physical appearance alone, it seemed an unlikely role for him. Tall, heavy set, in loose jeans and a black t-shirt, Ron looks more like the trucker he was for forty years than a volunteer for a cancer charity. Ron’s expression is generally serious and when I met him, he seemed reserved. However, as I got to know him, I learned that Ron is a plain speaker and a great story teller. He speaks his mind and refuses to tailor his opinions to what is politically correct. Because Ron’s politics are emphatically right wing, I was somewhat incredulous when he told me that he spent his days ferrying a clientele of cancer patients of Southeast Asian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern background, to their medical appointments. Ron is no bleeding heart liberal.
Ron and Joan live in a tidy little bungalow, about a forty-five minute drive from downtown Toronto, in suburban Mississauga. I met Joan when she was the office manager for the government legal department where I worked. Ron spent most of his career as an independent trucker, hauling goods to and from factories and warehouses throughout Canada and the United States. Ron and Joan are serious dog lovers. They have two golden retrievers of their own and provide a foster home for golden retriever rescues. Ron was retired for five years before he became a volunteer driver for cancer patients.
I was struck by the contrast between Ron’s life as a trucker, spending so much time alone on the road and his life as a volunteer, involved daily with the people who travel in the back seat of his van. Since he obviously got so much out of working with people, I asked him if he thought he would have been happier in a helping profession.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Driving cancer patients takes a lot out of me. I take a lot of stress on. I have seen a lot of people go gradually downhill and die. It’s hard.”
He described one of his first passengers as a “Muslim woman” in her late thirties who had pancreatic cancer. He watched the strength slowly ebb from her body over the weeks that he drove her to chemotherapy appointments at Jervinsky Cancer Centre in Hamilton. She had two young children and a husband who loved her. Since her cancer didn’t respond to the chemotherapy treatments after several months, her doctors recommended that she go to Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto for an intense week long course of chemotherapy. Ron said he would drive her to her appointments at Princess Margaret although it was in the opposite direction to the hospitals he serviced and added hours to his customary route.
“She was so weak when I drove her to Princess Margaret the first day that I had to get help to put her in a wheelchair. It was awful.”
Ron told her husband that she was too ill to go back and forth from Princess Margaret and that she needed to stay in the hospital to have her treatments. At this point, Ron paused. Although he was recounting an event that happened five years ago, it was obviously still upsetting to him.
“She never made it through the week”, he said. “She died at Princess Margaret.”
“That must have been terrible for you”, I said. “It must be so hard to watch people get so sick”.
“Yeah, it’s very hard. Sometimes, I tell them that if they know they only have a short time left, they should stop the chemo. I tell them that they should go on a trip, buy themselves whatever they want, max out their credit cards”.
He pauses again. In the silence, I start to wonder how Ron navigates relationships with his passengers. I ask Ron if the Cancer Society provides guidelines to their volunteers. It is obvious to me that the situation of a volunteer driver spending hours in a car with a person going through cancer treatment is rife with emotion.
“The Cancer Society doesn’t want you talking to the people you drive. They tell you not to make friends with them. In fact, they rotate the drivers so that they don’t drive the same people.”
“But you’re obviously driving the same people for long periods of time”, I said. “Your passengers seem to see you as a friend.”
“Yeah”, Ron responded. “I never did what the Cancer Society told me to do. My passengers ask me to drive them. They tell the dispatchers that they want me. The dispatchers have a hard job. They deal with a lot of difficult people. If they can make some of these people happy, they are gonna do that.”
While I consider if I should be offended by the fact that no one seems to be living by the rules set by the Cancer Society, Ron continues with his description of his experience as a volunteer. I am starting to feel like my concerns are divorced from the emotional reality of what Ron does. In the life and death world of cancer care, I see why Ron would do what he feels is best even if it sometimes involves breaking the rules.
“I have a gift”, he says. “People wanna talk to me. And they listen to me, too.”
Ron explains that he tries to make his van as welcoming and comfortable as possible. He gives each of his passengers a candy when he picks them up. He has Sirius XM in the van and plays the music they request. He describes the two “Irish girls” he used to drive to the hospital and how they loved country music.
“If I can make these people happy, I will”, he says. “They are going through some awful stuff and I will do anything I can to help them feel better about their lives”.
Ron says that he makes people feel relaxed by telling them about his own life. He says that he left home and learned how to take care of himself when he was very young. He saw a lot of the world and fell in love a few times. His stories are entertaining. They keep the mood light in the van. Some of his passengers bring lunch for him. He says that the tradition of bringing food started with a Jamaican lady. Not to be outdone, a Filipino lady who he was driving at the same time, started to bring him food.
I ask Ron whether he has problems communicating with some of his passengers. There must be language barriers.
“Well, if they don’t speak any English, they usually find a friend or relative to come to the van with them so that they can tell me what I need to know. And if I give them a card with my name on it, they can give it to someone at the hospital so that they can call me. We can get around the language problem.”
“So, you get to know some of the people in the family, too.” I say.
“O yeah. I know their families. If I lose touch with a patient because they stop going to treatment, I might get a call weeks or even months later from someone in the family to let me know what is going on.”
Ron tells me that his passengers also get to know one another. He overhears all kinds of conversation coming from the back seat of his car. He says that his female passengers worry a lot about the effects of their surgeries and treatments on their relationships with their partners. He said that sometimes he is embarrassed by the exchange of such intimate information in the back seat of his car. In fact, he has had to remind one or two of his passengers that he is driving the car so that they don’t later regret divulging their secrets.
Ron told me that hair loss is even more worrying for women in terms of its effect on their relationships, than a mastectomy.
“I tell them that the best thing to do is to shave their hair off as soon as it starts falling out. I tell them to get it over with. Its better to shave it all off at once than to get depressed every morning, watching big chunks of it falling into the sink. Besides, lots of women look attractive, bald.”
Ron’s brusque manner and plain speaking style have landed him in trouble. His speech is scattered with allusions to colour and religion. In a society like Canada’s, which prides itself on tolerance and diversity, Ron sounds like an outlier.
But his actions reveal that Ron is a lover of humanity, not a racist. He treats everyone riding in his van with care and consideration. It doesn’t matter to Ron where you came from, he will take you to the hospital, listen to your story and try to take your mind off your problems.
Some months before the pandemic started, someone reported Ron to the Cancer Society for racial prejudice. This complaint was apparently resolved and Ron kept driving. In another incident, one of Ron’s passengers took offence when he told her that she would have to take a numbered ticket from a dispenser in the hospital waiting room, just as she would in a delicatessen. More recently, Ron had a conflict with a hospital employee over a delayed appointment for one of Ron’s passengers. Ron said that because the patient was not an English speaker, he was ignored by hospital staff. The hospital backed the employee, said it treated all patients, equally and complained about Ron to the Cancer Society.
In addition to the stress of the work, Ron’s decision to ignore the Cancer Society’s suspension of the volunteer driving program has made his work more complicated. During the pandemic, he has had to rely on personal connections with patients and hospital staff to keep working as a driver. The hospitals are very selective about who they will allow onto their premises. Ron told me that he delivers his passengers to a designated area outside the hospital where they are met by hospital staff and escorted into the building. Without the intermediation of dispatchers from the Cancer Society, it is hard to keep things moving smoothly.
I ask Ron how long he is going to keep driving. It is hard work and it has taken a toll on him. Ron didn’t give me a straight answer but it is clear to me that he doesn’t want to quit anytime soon. He told me again that he is the most requested driver for the Cancer Society. And he is pretty sure that the Cancer Society still needs him to drive. Unlike Ron, many drivers took themselves off the volunteer roster during the pandemic. Sooner or later, the Cancer Society will be needing some heroes.