April 21, 2015 – The Orange County Register
Jayden Garcia cried and kicked during the ordeal of his first chemotherapy treatments last year. Afterward, the toddler just wanted to take a nap, but his bed was two bus rides away.
It took 90 minutes for Jayden and his mom, Berenice Garcia, to travel less than 5 miles from Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange to their Santa Ana apartment. Besides the time, Garcia worried about her son’s exposure to germs because of his weakened immune system.
But soon into his treatment, Garcia learned of a ride service for children with cancer that would give them door-to-door transportation to doctor’s appointments at no cost.
On a Wednesday afternoon, a uniformed driver parked a passenger van in front of their apartment. Jayden, 3, ran to the window, excited to see his ride. Driver Blanca Lopez provided a car seat and a step stool to help him climb aboard.
“It’s a great help,” said Garcia, 20. “They’re always there on time. They always help me get to my appointment on time. It’s cleaner and faster.”
Richard and Diane Nares started the van service, called Ride With Emilio, in San Diego after their only child, Emilio, died of acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 5.
“I always say we had the perfect life,” said Richard Nares, 61, executive director of the nonprofit Emilio Nares Foundation. “That just turned our world upside-down.”
During their son’s chemo and radiation treatments, they noticed that some families struggled to get to the hospital, compounding an already trying time.
“It’s not just financial, it’s an emotional crisis as well,” Nares said.
After their son’s death in 2000, Nares and his wife wanted to serve other hurting families. At first, Nares gave rides in his own car. In 2005, they bought their first van and hired a driver.
Nares remembers one mother whose 2-year-old had a brain tumor. They left their home in Fallbrook for the bus stop at 4 a.m., allowing four hours to arrive in San Diego.
“When she took her first ride she was crying the whole time,” he said.
The service expanded to Orange County in 2009, with two vans. It serves about 40 local families per year on a budget of $80,000 provided by grants and fundraising. Patients typically use the service 30 to 70 times, depending on their treatment. Hospital social workers refer families to it.
The vans are stocked with car seats of all sizes and are cleaned daily. Siblings often ride along. Emilio’s smiling face is displayed on the front of the white vehicles. Ironically, Nares said, his son always wanted to ride in a van but never had a chance. Now, his dad says, he never gets off.
“It’s surprising that I never get tired of looking at it,” Nares said. “Sometimes I’ll be merging on the freeway and I’ll see it and it’s like, ‘Dad, I’m here and you’re doing a great job.’”
Claudia Begino, an oncology social worker at CHOC, said that before the service started, she had limited funds to pay for taxi rides for families without transportation.
“Some families may just have one car and it may be that Dad needs it to go to work so Mom has no way of getting to the clinic for the kid’s appointments,” Begino said. “We don’t encourage families to take public transportation. They’re at a higher risk of acquiring some type of infection. An infection can be deadly for a cancer patient. These kids are very vulnerable.”
Jayden was diagnosed last May with Langerhans cell histiocytosis, a rare cancer that begins in cells that fight infection. It is most common in young children, according to the National Cancer Institute.
His left eye looked swollen and at first his doctor thought he had pink eye. But when drops didn’t take away his pain, Garcia took him to CHOC.
“He would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and tell me his eye hurt,” Garcia said.
A CAT scan revealed a tumor. Jayden underwent surgery to remove it and started chemo.
Garcia, a single mom, was left reeling.
“It was pretty bad,” Garcia said. “Honestly, I went into depression. I couldn’t take it.”
But she and Jayden have learned to adapt. The van service has helped Garcia relax and gives Jayden a fun diversion. He likes to ask Garcia about everything they see on the drive to CHOC.
“He was happy because he saw the truck,” Garcia said. “He said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s go, Mommy. They’re here.’”
After they arrived for Jayden’s most recent chemo session, Jayden sat on his mom’s lap and played a game on a hospital iPad. He didn’t even flinch when on the count of three the needle entered the port underneath the skin of his chest.
His oncologist, Dr. Agnes Horvath, said he’s doing great and there’s no sign of disease in his body.
After his treatment, Jayden played outside while Garcia called for the van to return. Lopez helped them load up and they were home in less than 20 minutes.