CAMDEN, Maine — Carol and Jim laugh and talk about their kids, their spouses and Christmas just like any two friends would. The radio in Jim Gamage’s black pickup truck doesn’t get clicked on during the two-hour journeys to Bath about five times a week — there’s no need.
For the last month, Gamage’s free rides have been a lifeline for Carol Vose of Columbia Falls.
Vose, 57, is living with stage four breast cancer. She would drive herself, but her cancer medications make that dangerous. And although her mother can drive her a couple times a week — if the weather is good — it’s a bit too much for the 80-year-old to go all five times a week for the radiation treatments Vose needs.
The regular trips to Bath are in addition to twice-monthly trips to Scarborough and Belfast for doctor’s appointments. At first, it wasn’t easy to coordinate her rides. She had a couple options because of her low-income status, but the services she found had to taxi others, too, and the rides that lasted for several hours left her exhausted and in pain because she’d sit for so long. As it is, the two-hour round-trip rides to Bath are difficult.
“Trying to find rides was about trying to find out if I could get treatment,” Vose said.
Enter Jim Gamage.
About one year ago, Gamage was mourning the loss of his mother-in-law, who died of cancer. Having had to help her make her doctor’s appointments, he wondered how other people were doing it without assistance. So he began the Miles of Hope project, which offers free rides to people in Knox County who need to get to their cancer treatments. The service recently celebrated its one year anniversary.
“We thought there must be people who don’t get treatment because they don’t have a ride or don’t want to put a family member out. [Radiation] is every day for 6-8 weeks. I think you have enough trouble, you shouldn’t have to worry about driving or how you will get to the hospital and back,” Gamage said.
For patients such as Vose, Gamage drives the one hour to Bath, then waits in his truck during the 15-minute radiation treatment, then drives back to the Rockland area with his passenger.
Miles of Hope is not a nonprofit organization. It’s not a business. It’s just a guy being nice.
Gamage doesn’t ask for a penny from the riders, nor would he take one. So far, he has gone 33,000 miles. He finances the trips out of his own pocket, using profits from a trolley company and staffing agency he owns.
“There aren’t many people like Jim,” Vose whispered from her passenger seat while Gamage refilled his windshield fluid on one of their recent trips.
Jim got back in his truck and pulled onto the icy roads.
“Michelle cut Noah’s hair yesterday,” Gamage told Vose about his 2-year-old son.
“How’s it look?”
“Awful,” Gamage said.
The two laughed.
“She cut it too short. His bangs are way up here. But he doesn’t know. We tell him it looks great,” Gamage said.
A lot of the conversation goes like this. But some of it is much heavier.
At one point, Vose talked about the past four years she has spent battling cancer, a mastectomy and leaving her Washington County home where her husband is to live with her mom so she could access the best medical care.
“I’ve had a time out. It’s helped clarify my priorities and let me live them,” Vose said. “I used to do everything in a hurry. Cancer has been the greatest teacher I’ve ever had. It’s been a hard set of lessons, but I’m a better person for it. I’ve gained empathy.”
Gamage mentioned that one of his friends said cancer was the greatest gift she’d ever gotten and how, although it’s strange, he gets it.
Vose took a sip of her hot chocolate with whipped cream and they sat in silence for a moment before Gamage broke the tension by talking about how the people he works with at the trolley company he owns are CPR certified. And soon, things are back to normal. But it’s those tough moments of silence that make it worth his while.
“I’ve had the best conversations of my life in this truck. I’ve learned a lot. That’s what I get out of it,” he said.
Vose is Gamage’s 16th Miles of Hope client. The program has three drivers: Gamage, his mom and his employee Liz Twitchell all volunteer time to drive. So far the program has brought riders to nine hospitals as far away as Boston.
Andrea Timchak, 72, of Rockland, accepted rides from Gamage twice. First for a few weeks in April to receive radiation for a brain tumor and again in October for a cancerous growth in her chest. Bath — a 90-mile round trip — is the closest place to Rockland for patients to get radiation treatments.
“I had to go to Bath for radiation. It’s an hour drive. I don’t have people here. My husband works. I called Jim and he was so so nice. They helped me into the car and got me to my appointment and they drove me back,” Timchak said. “He was always here for me.”
Timchak said she can cruise around town, but doesn’t like to drive distances because she’s so tired from all the cancer treatments. Her fatigue was what pushed her to ask Miles of Hope for help rather than another service.
“There are organizations that drive down, but you end up waiting until they can come get you. It would have been much more difficult,” she said. “You just want to be home and in your bed relaxing. I’m just very tired. I have no energy.”
Some riders, Gamage keeps in touch with. Others he just knows for a few weeks. But according to him, they have collectively changed his life. Now, he makes sure to carve out time every day for his wife and child.
“Every day I drive someone to treatment, you learn what’s important. In real life it gets busy and you think you’re having a bad day. Really? Are you? If you think so, give me one day and volunteer to drive,” Gamage said. “It gives you a whole new outlook and appreciation.”
For more information, visit the Miles of Hope Facebook page or call Jim Gamage at 691-9300.