Toni Caruso of Qualicum Beach, front row third from left, joins Freemasons from central Vancouver Island to donate a van to the cancer van program. SONJA DRINKWATER PHOTO

Vancouver Island cancer patients get new ride to appointments

Qualicum Beach woman donates van to Freemasons’ transportation program

Masons in central Vancouver Island are thrilled with the gift of a new van to transport cancer patients to their appointments.

Toni (Antonia) Caruso of Qualicum Beach is a patient of the Freemasons’ cancer car program. She decided to donate a new van to the program – one that will be used to transport cancer patients like her to and from treatment appointments. She uses the service twice a week to get to her chemotherapy appointments in Nanaimo.

The Freemasons of B.C. and Yukon have run the initiative in partnership with the Canadian Cancer Society since 1989; volunteer drivers take patients to and from cancer treatments around Vancouver Island free of charge.

Caruso has used the program since she started her most recent round of chemotherapy in November 2018. She was first diagnosed with cancer in 2017 and prior to using the program, she said she would often have to wait hours to take a bus that transported a variety of patients to and from the hospital. One day she had to wait six hours for a ride home after receiving chemotherapy. “That was just way too much for me, I get really sick from the chemotherapy appointments,” she said.

Having more specialized transportation and care makes a big difference in Caruso’s day. Being able to use the cancer care program means her spending less time in the hospital.

“They wait for me, they’re patient, they’re loving,” said Caruso. “They give you personalized attention, they are just very kind to me. The drivers and dispatcher have been so wonderful to me that I just have to give back. I didn’t want all this publicity, I just wanted to help.”

Dispatcher Peter Halliwall said the Freemason Cancer Van program services all cancer facilities on Vancouver Island, with five vans servicing Campbell River, Courtenay, Port Alberni, Nanaimo and Duncan. The Nanaimo van can transport nine passengers; all the other vans are seven-seater vans.

The Freemasons don’t go as far as the west coast, “but we do ask people to get the Tofino bus to Port and we will take them from there,” Halliwell said.

The vans run five days a week, and their schedule caters to riders’ schedules. They mainly take people to the B.C. Cancer Clinic and Vancouver Island Lodge in Victoria, as well as Nanaimo Regional General Hospital and North Island Hospital Comox Valley in Courtenay. They will take passengers to Departure Bay ferry terminal to take the ferry to Vancouver for treatment, and also arrange for transportation from Horseshoe Bay terminal on the mainland.

“We have passengers who stay at the cancer lodge or in hotels and with friends in Victoria that go down on Monday and return Friday,” Halliwell said. “We also go down and back five days a week.”

Freemasons members and volunteers who were on hand for the official presentation of the van included Colin Craig, Trevor Prutton, Peter Halliwell, Bill Allen, Rod Bartlett, Jake Heid, George Liong, John McDowall, Bob Neville, Monti Shilton and district deputy grand master of B.C. and Yukon, R.W. Brother Gerry Flesh.

All of the signage that was applied to the van was done free of charge by Aituze Graphics of Parksville by owner Anthony Ramalho.

All the money to operate the Freemason cancer van program come from an assessment on every Mason in B.C. on their annual dues and from passengers who want to donate to the program.

Patient in need of transportation are asked to call 1-800-299-0188.

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