Twenty-four years ago, FISH (Friends In Sonoma Helping), had 27 drivers handling as many as 50 calls a month from people who had medical appointments.
Since then, the number of calls for service has quadrupled but the number of drivers has pretty much stayed steady. FISH has 35 drivers to handle more than 200 calls a month.
“We are in dire need of drivers,” said Sandra Piotter, FISH’s executive director. “We’re averaging 135 out of town rides a month. We have a lot of people going to Kaiser and the VA – and those are out of town trips.”
Many people have to leave the Valley for treatments, such as dialysis, chemotherapy, radiation treatment and pulmonary treatment.
“Our biggest out of town need is for people going to dialysis,” Piotter said. “We either go to Napa or Petaluma.”
It takes two drivers for each dialysis patient since treatment takes four hours. One driver drops patients off and another has to go back and pick them up.
“Physical therapy is another large portion of our riders,” Piotter said. “And people go two-to-three times a week to physical therapy.”
In July, Temelec residents called for 43 rides, Emeritus at Sonoma requested 33 rides, FAHA requested 19 rides and Pueblo Serena/Moon Valley residents called for 15 rides. And the destinations were scattered too. Forty to Santa Rosa, 38 to Petaluma, 13 to Marin County and 17 to San Francisco, to go along with 79 local riders.
“On our rides to San Francisco, the rider has to be there by 7 a.m., which means the FISH driver is getting up at 4 a.m.,” she said. “And then we need another driver who has to go back at 5 p.m. – and fight rush hour traffic.”
Even on local trips, FISH allows for two-to-three hours from leaving home until the driver gets back home.
“It takes quite a commitment,” she said.
Piotter said a lot of their riders are elderly who are trying to preserve their independence by not asking family or friends for rides. “FISH provides their independence,” she added.
Riders have to call a week in advance for a ride, and FISH will schedule for only the drivers it has available. Currently, FISH is also providing rides for two of its own drivers.
“It would be nice to have a van,” Piotter said.
Piotter also wishes Sonoma Valley Hospital could offer dialysis, but she knows it wouldn’t pencil out.
“We serve the entire community,” she said. “But most of our calls are clustered around senior needs and aging.”
Phyllis Carter has been driving for FISH for about 25 years. She gets up on Tuesday and Thursdays at 5:15 a.m. and takes two riders to Napa for dialysis.
“I don’t wait around,” Carter said. “Dialysis takes a couple of hours, so another driver picks them up.”
Carter got talked into driving by the late Evelyn Berger who lived around the corner. “One day Evelyn said, ‘I need a driver. Can you drive?’ That was 25 years ago and I haven’t stopped.”