After 18 years, the “cancer van” made its last trip to Casper on Friday

(Fremont County, Wyo.) – When one door closes, another opens. For the past 18 years, the Help For Health Cancer Van has made the daily round trip between Fremont County and Casper for patients needing radiation and chemotherapy. That era came to a close this past Friday when the last trip to Casper was in the books.

When the Rocky Mountain Oncology center opened in Lander with a new radiation and cancer treatment center here, the van embarked on a new schedule.

help for health“We’ve adjusted the route so every day it’s a straight shot to Shoshoni from Lander, then back to Lander with stops at Campbell’s Corner, Riverton and Hudson,” said Help for Health Executive Director Rhonda Locker. “We’re now taking folks to Lander instead of Casper. It’s better for the patients because the trip isn’t as long.” When the last patient’s treatment is finished, the van retraces its stops and then returns to Lander.

Locker hopped on the bus Tuesday afternoon at 1:20 in the parking lot of Riverton City Hall, “to see what the flow of the new schedule was like.” On Tuesday, there were two passengers, both from Riverton, so the van didn’t go all the way to Shoshoni.

“People call our answering service to let us know they’ll be riding,” she said. “So we know where we’ll need to stop.”

The cancer van service from Fremont County started on April 1, 1996 in partnership with the Wyoming Medical Center in Caper.

Since that first day, the five different vans have driven 1,440,000 accident-free miles. “That’s 59 times around the world,” Locker said. “That’s an average of over 80,000 miles per year. In that time we had 11 different drivers and we provided 28,000 passenger trips per year.”  Locker said that number was not the total number of individual passengers, as many of the passengers would ride the bus for several or more months.

Locker provided individual passenger statistics from the past three years based on their fiscal year.

“From July 2011 to June 2012, we carried 861 different individuals. From July 2012 to June 2013 the passenger count was 886 people, and this past year to present, July 2013 to today, we’ve provided 1,295 people with rides,” she said. “That represents a big jump.”

“This service has been a real benefit because people needed someone to drive them to and from the treatment center,” she said.

When asked where the passengers came from, Locker said it was pretty much county-wide, with one exception. “We really don’t have too many people who rode the bus from Dubois. The largest number is from Riverton, then Lander and then those who would drive to meet us at Campbell’s Corner or in Shoshoni. Some of the people meeting us in Shoshoni had driven down from Thermopolis.”

Locker said keeping the bus in Fremont County will benefit Help For Health for several reasons. “The bus will last longer, save us gas, and it’s not so long of a day for patients. Rocky Mountain Oncology set us up for a 2 p.m. appointment time rather than the 10 a.m. time we had in Casper. After the treatments are over, then we take them back to where we picked them up.”

History of the vans

David Steidley of Lander drove the Help for Health Cancer Van in last summer's Fremont County Fair Parade. (file photo)

David Steidley of Lander drove the van in the Fair Parade. (file photo)

Board member Joy Buck of Lander recalled that the first van was obtained in March, 1996 and it began its trips to Casper on April 1st of that year.

“We sent the Wyoming Medical Center $15,000 to help pay for that first van, and the medical center took ownership and paid operational expenses,” she said. As an aside, Buck remembered that a television set was installed in that first van, “and it only cost us $297. But it didn’t work out in the van. No one felt like looking at TV.”

Van #2

The late Mary Neel helped arrange for the second van, convincing the McMurray Foundation to make a grant to the Wyoming Medical Center. The Casper hospital then donated Van #1 back to Help for Health, which then in turn donated it to the Riverton Senior Citizens Center to transport dialysis patients between Riverton and Lander.

Van #3

With significant assistance from the Wyoming Department of Transportation, who funded 90 percent, and Fremont Motors, who chipped in the other 10 percent, the third van was purchased in 2004. Van #2 was then sold to the Evangelical Free Church.

Van #4

Van number three was then traded in for the #4 van.

Van #5

The newest van, #5, was purchased, again with assistance from WYDOT and from Encana Oil and Gas. This van runs on natural gas, which saves on the fuel costs, Buck said. Van #4 was donated to the St. Francis Initiative Shelter in Denver and it is used to transport homeless women to different churches where they can spend the night.

“You know, we’ve never charged any one to ride it. We’ve been able to raise funds to cover the costs. Somehow it always works out,” Buck said. “We get lots of assistance now from the Tough Enough Cancer Fund, too.”