Ronnie Polaneczky: Some kind Philly hearts wheel and deal to get cancer patients to treatment

Cancer patient Eva Cirucci with Dr. Christine Arenson, a Jefferson physician. PhillyPatientRide would be a "godsend" for Cirucci, says her family.
Cancer patient Eva Cirucci with Dr. Christine Arenson, a Jefferson physician. PhillyPatientRide would be a "godsend" for Cirucci, says her family.
Posted: December 30, 2010

AS WE head into 2011, I'd like to offer a stadium cheer for Gerald Furgione, executive director of PhillyCarShare, for trying to level the playing field between city and suburban cancer patients.

I know: You wouldn't think patients' ZIP codes would affect whether they're able to travel to their treatment.

Especially since the American Cancer Society has a terrific national program called Road to Recovery. It pairs volunteer drivers with cancer patients who are unable or too sick to drive to their appointments, or have no one to take them there.

Or who simply can't afford the commute. The cost of SEPTA or taxis piles up when you need radiation five days a week for weeks at a time. Or weekly chemo for months on end.

"Transportation is a top priority for patients, right up there with financial assistance," says Jamie McCann, cancer-control specialist with the American Cancer Society-Southeast Region. "If you have great treatment available but can't get to it, that's a desperate situation."

Bucks and Chester counties each have about 15 Road to Recovery volunteers. Delaware County has 20. And Montgomery County has a posse of 100 drivers ready to jump behind the wheel to give patients a lift.

But in Philadelphia, the number of volunteers is - wait for it - zero.

"Fewer city residents have cars, or they can't afford the gas," says McCann. "They worry that their insurance won't cover any liability."

Or - wait for it again - "they don't want to give up their parking spaces."

Proving my theorem that parking is at the root of most city dilemmas.

Whatever the reason, the impact on patients is profound.

"We have people who have to choose between paying for medicine and paying for a cab," says Donatella Richard, an oncology social worker at Hahnemann University Hospital. " Sometimes they cancel appointments because they can't afford to come in."

While different patient-transport programs exist in the city, a recent study conducted by Hahnemann points out that each has a different set of qualifying criteria and is administered by a different organization.

"As a result," the report notes, "patients . . . must consult a variety of independent sources in order to stitch together a solution for [those] who need daily transportation often for weeks or months at a time."

As if retching from chemo isn't enough of an ordeal.

Richard fields about 10 requests per week from city patients needing a ride. But that's from just one hospital, in a city with many cancer centers. Extrapolate that number across Philly, and you can imagine the scope of the hardship.

Which brings us to PhillyCarShare's Furgione.

Two years ago, during a conversation with a representative of the American Cancer Society, he learned about the transportation problem.

And he thought: Why not recruit volunteers to drive patients to treatment in PhillyCarShare cars, at no cost to either of them?

Thus was born PhillyPatientRide, a 10-week pilot program coordinated by PhillyCarShare and the American Cancer Society and funded by four Philly hospitals: Hahnemann, Temple, Jefferson and Penn.

Starting Tuesday, volunteer drivers will take cancer patients to and from those hospitals. If the pilot is a success, Furgione would love to find funding to expand PhillyPatientRide to other city hospitals - perhaps even to noncancer patients.

"Getting to treatment is hard for people no matter what disease they have," he says.

Interest in PhillyPatientRide has been brisk. As of yesterday, 60 people, many of them current PhillyCarShare members, had expressed interest in volunteering. And 20 already had been through the one-hour training session (Furgione would like to train 80 more during the pilot).

Families, too, are taking note.

Philly resident Carolyn Verdi and her sister are the primary caregivers for their 87-year-old aunt, Eva Cirucci, who lives in Center City and is undergoing radiation five days a week at Jefferson for breast cancer.

"I work full-time and my sister lives outside the city," says Verdi. "It's hard for us to get my aunt to and from Jefferson. The cabs are costing her about twelve dollars a day. She's on a fixed income, and it's getting very expensive."

When Verdi heard about PhillyPatientRide, she whooped in relief and signed up her aunt.

"Someone has answered our prayers," she says. "This will be a godsend."

Indeed it will. So, all together now: Three cheers for Furgione.

For more information, e-mail info@phillypatientride.org or call 215-730-0988.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ronnieblog.

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