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‘Angels sent from God’: Ex-UNLV coach drives effort to help cancer patients

In a departure from his usual March Madness drill, legendary basketball coach Lon Kruger spent early Wednesday morning driving a cancer patient to and from an appointment for radiation treatment.

For 45 years, this was the time of year when Kruger, the first coach to lead five programs to the NCAA Tournament, would have been preparing for a game.

“Move on to different things,” said Kruger, who retired in 2021 as the coach at the University of Oklahoma, as he dropped off the patient at a medical complex in the northwest Las Vegas Valley.

The former UNLV coach is a new volunteer driver for the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program, which connects drivers with patients who need transportation to their appointments for treatment.

“They are angels sent from God,” patient Jose A. Lee said about the drivers, after stepping out of Kruger’s red Cadillac Escalade.

“Without them, I think I’d be lost,” said the 77-year-old Army veteran and former New York police officer, who is receiving treatment for prostate cancer.

‘Part of curing cancer that day’

Lack of transportation is the No. 1 reason that cancer patients miss treatment appointments, according to the American Cancer Society. Kruger has spurred an effort to increase the network of volunteer drivers in Southern Nevada that had dwindled to a handful due to the pandemic, said Deidra Hamilton, co-chair of the cancer society’s leadership board in Nevada.

Last year, just 28 percent of requests could be fulfilled. That percentage will improve as more drivers are added to the roster. There are now 21 drivers, and five more in training, according to Hamilton.

Hamilton, an oncology nurse and a volunteer driver herself, described driving patients as one of her favorite things to do.

“You are beating cancer. You are part of curing cancer that day. … It’s a great feeling, and it’s the easiest thing to do. I just sit in my car,” she said with a laugh.

Volunteers are providing more than a ride to cancer patients by becoming a trusted ally, a connection that is rewarding, she said.

‘We’ve all been touched by cancer’

Some patients request a ride when they don’t feel well enough to drive themselves. Some have a caregiver who can’t take off from work. Other patients can’t take the bus because their immune system has been compromised by treatment. Still others can’t afford to pay for transportation, no longer drive or don’t have a vehicle.

Kruger’s goal is to have 65 drivers, which would mean that all requests could be fulfilled if each driver volunteered for one round-trip ride per month, he said.

Kruger became involved in cancer philanthropy through Coaches vs. Cancer, a program started by Norm Stewart, former head coach of the University of Missouri’s men’s basketball program and a cancer survivor.

“We’ve all been touched by cancer,” said Kruger, whose father died of cancer and whose wife is a cancer survivor. “It’s a terrible disease, and we’re making great progress. People are living longer.”

Hamilton said Kruger is reaching out to his network for help in recruiting drivers. “He fixes things. He’s a doer,” she said.

Southern Glazer’s Wine &Spirits has committed to providing 45 volunteers who will take at least one round-trip drive over the span of a year, said Gena Fogarty, office manager and volunteer coordinator.

“Cancer is something that affects so many of us,” Fogarty said. “I think we can make a difference.”

Volunteers, who must be between the ages of 18 and 84, are required to have their own vehicle and car insurance. They are required to pass a background check. They are not reimbursed for the cost of gas but may be eligible for a tax deduction. They can volunteer as much as as they want or as little as their schedule allows. Scheduling is coordinated online.

To learn more about the program, visit www.cancer.org/drive or call 800-227-2345.

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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