HAVING worked in sales for 45 years, John Coomey is well able to talk and strike up a rapport with people.
And now, in his retirement, he is putting his people skills to good use, working as a volunteer driver for chemotherapy patients in the Cork area.
National Volunteers’ Week takes place from May 15 to 21 and John is testament to the two-way street involved in voluntary work.
While he provides a much-needed service, driving patients from West Cork and Cork city to Cork University Hospital (CUH) and the Mercy Hospital for their chemotherapy treatment, he points out that being retired means he needs a connection with people.
“The voluntary work I do works for me and it’s amazing what it means to people going for their treatment. It takes their mind off it.
“You can have a conversation with the patient in the car. People love to have a chat, depending on how they’re feeling. They go through different stages. They can be very nervous about going to hospital. It helps having the likes of me picking them up.
“An oncology nurse rang me one time and said, in her experience, the patients who have been driven to hospital by the volunteers come in totally relaxed and are able to accept their treatment much better.”
Since July, 2014, John, 66, has done 100 ‘chemotherapy drives.’ He fell into the service quite by accident. After having had “a fast-paced life,” he retired in 2011 and took a year out.
“When I heard on TV3 that the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind were looking for volunteers, I applied and got involved in the fund-raising side of things.
“Then there was an ad in our local church magazine by Cancer Collect who were looking for drivers. They’re based in Bantry and cover West Cork. I was with them for 12 months. But I did very little for them as most of their volunteers live in West Cork. I ended up doing only two or three drives for them in 2013.”
John later spotted an ad from the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) which was starting up a driving service in the Cork, Kerry and Waterford areas.
“I applied and got through and did one day’s training about what to do and what not to do. I could be driving a patient to hospital once a week or five times a week.”
The service is much appreciated by people living alone. It would be very expensive if these people had to cover the cost of making frequent trips to hospital and living alone, they may not have anyone to call on.
“The way it works, the ICS sends out an email requesting a driver without mentioning the patient’s name. The ICS then sends out the details of the patient two days prior to collecting them. I would ring the person to organise a pick-up time and after taking them to hospital, they ring me when they’re ready to go home after treatment. I bring them back to their door.”
The service is for city dwellers as well.
“A lot of people living in the city might be or their own or their family would be out working and unable to do the run.”
John says that he works in conjunction with other volunteer drivers. He might only drive a particular patient to hospital a couple of times with another volunteer stepping in for other trips.
“The idea is that there wouldn’t be too much of a relationship built up. That’s important because if anything happens to a patient afterwards, the driver can feel it and be upset.”
Feeling useful is one of the off-shoots of John’s voluntary work. And he is full of admiration for the patients he meets.
“Some people are very strong mentally but you know they’re vulnerable as well. It’s when they start discussing their treatment that it becomes more real to them. You realise they’re handling it well. It’s incredible that they have no cribbing or moaning. That’s the exceptional thing I find about them.”
John, who lives with his wife, Carmel, and whose family are grown up and living away, reckons he always wanted to help people.
“You have to have sensitivity in you towards people.”
Some of the patients he transports are on the road to recovery.
“As for people who are not going to recover, you’d know that yourself but you’d never let them think it. They’re so strong. They go all the way to the very end. They may realise they probably won’t make it, but they still feel they will.”
The ICS transport service is only available to people aged over 18.
“There’s a big need for what we’re doing. It’s growing all the time. One in four people get cancer.”
John says he will continue his voluntary work for as long as he can. It’s all part of giving something back to society.
In 2015, over 14,400 volunteers registered with the national volunteer database, IVOL.
These volunteers contributed over 470,000 hours and over €10m to the economy.
For more information see www.cancer.ie.