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Driving Force: Towson resident delivers cancer patients to treatment through Road to Recovery program

Jim Higbee of Towson, left, a volunteer driver with the American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery program, stands with David Fitzgibbons of Cockeysville, who he drove to treatments over 30 times, in the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Park in Towson.
Jim Higbee of Towson, left, a volunteer driver with the American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery program, stands with David Fitzgibbons of Cockeysville, who he drove to treatments over 30 times, in the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Park in Towson. (Nicole Munchel for the Baltimore / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Even in retirement, Jim Higbee is on the move.

The Towson resident spends a fair amount of time these days as a volunteer for the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program. He drives cancer patients to their various treatment destinations.

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It’s a natural fit for Higbee, 65, who survived melanoma 13 years ago and wants to afford others the same opportunity to beat cancer, regardless of which form it takes.

He said that he’s busier with his duties with the program once the golf season winds down, yet he still manages to transport patients a couple of times per week in the warmer months.

"That's why everyone can get involved in the program, because it's so flexible and it helps cancer patients so much,” Higbee said.

And that’s not all he does in his efforts to help to defeat the disease.

A couple of weeks ago, Higbee was the race director for the American Cancer Society’s Outrun Cancer 5K at Goucher College.

After what he went through in 2006, including surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital to remove what he thought was a a harmless freckle on the bridge of his nose, Higbee is all about helping others fight back.

Fortunately, the surgery bypassed a need for radiation or chemotherapy, which is not always the case for many others confronting cancer.

Take, for instance, one of Higbee’s most frequent riders, David Fitzgibbons, who required 31 consecutive days of radiation treatment for larynx cancer last winter after being diagnosed with the throat disease a couple of days before Christmas.

Fitzgibbons said that Higbee showed up every day at around 6:30 a.m. to take him to the Milton J. Dance Jr. Head and Neck Center at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center for a 7:15 a.m. appointment — and then drove him back to his Cockeysville apartment.

Never mind that Fitzgibbons also had afternoon treatments at the same facility every day during the span when Higbee was unavailable to take him.

Fitzgibbons, 62, used taxis to travel back and forth for the afternoon sessions, partaking of a stipend from the Road to Recovery program funded by a $26,000 donation from the MileOne Autogroup.

“David’s story is exactly why we decided to fund supplemental rides through ACS’s Road to Recovery program,” said Scott Fader, chief operating officer of MileOne Autogroup. “We know that transportation can be helpful in transforming people’s lives, and we understand how much a life can change with the opportunity to have reliable transportation at a patient’s disposal."

Like so many others facing cancer, Fitzgibbons needed help to wage a battle against the disease.

MileOne’s supplemental program, called Travel to Treatment, has benefited more than 500 people, and is already in place for 2020, Fader said.

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When Fitzgibbons did arrive at GBMC, he said he took a double dose of radiation, which upped his survivability rate.

“And Jim never missed a beat,” the 1977 Towson High alumnus added. "He was there every morning.”

“I think I was late once, by a minute,” Higbee joked.

“Yeah, and I was really pissed off,” Fitzgibbons retorted in mock indignation.

Despite the playful banter, Fitzgibbons said that Higbee has become much more than a friend; he’s been a life-saver for a patient who was told by three doctors recently that his cancer is in remission.

“There were days when I was tired of getting my butt kicked by cancer,” he said. “But Jim gave me the drive to do what I needed to do if I wanted to live — and there were days that I didn’t want to live.

"But he would show up and say, ‘Let’s go.’ I just couldn’t let the man down. I figured that if he made the effort every day to pick me up, the least I could do was to go get treatment.”

Considering all the time the men spent together during their commute, they soon discovered that they had common ground in their medical histories and in their love of golf.

Their professional lives, however, were much different.

Higbee was a certified public accountant, while Fizgibbons owned a roofing company that employed more than 100 people until he said that a 32-foot fall from a roof fractured his spine and rendered him bedridden for a year at the turn of the century.

Lifestyle differences aside, Higbee’s and Fitzgibbons’ shared goal is to defeat cancer.

“I had been involved [in the Road to Recovery program] for a year and a half,” Higbee said. “So I knew not to ask him about his treatment. A lot of people like to keep that private, but David was very forthcoming. He told me that he had smoked for 50 years and that he had quit cold turkey. We talked about our lives and our mutual interest in golf. We got to be friends who were going to go through the process together.”

Fitzgibbons, a divorced father of two who does not drive, said, “I had no family and nobody who could take me to get treatment.”

It was the kind of attitude Higbee showed that inspired him, Fitzgibbons said.

“Jim is the kind of guy who gives freely of his time and who will do anything for you regarding cancer,” Fitzgibbons added. “He will be in my heart the rest of my life.”

Higbee said that the battle against cancer is worth the effort.

“I know how nasty it is to fight that disease,” he said. “And I know how great it is to beat it.”

That’s why Higbee is so adamant about embracing a program that provided more than 340,000 free rides to and from treatment facilities in the U.S. last year, according to the American Cancer Society.

The cancer society focuses on access to care, including free lodging, which is why the organization is so proud of Road to Recovery, said Tswana Sewell, executive director of the American Cancer Society for Maryland and Washington, D.C.

“I’ve talked to many Road to Recovery drivers and patients who feel it’s so gratifying to go through the process together that they develop a friendship,” she said. “That’s the kind of thing that makes the program so rewarding.”

In Maryland, 450 cancer patients were afforded nearly 10,000 rides through Road to Recovery and another program, New York City-based Ride Health, which, according to its website, enables health care providers and health plans nationwide to arrange transportation “for low-income, elderly and disabled patients who face transportation barriers to care.” More than half the local rides come through funding from the MileOne Autogroup.

Higbee said that volunteer drivers go online to www.cancer.org/drive to input how often they are available and how many miles they are willing to drive.

He said it’s not uncommon to pick up patients as far north as Bel Air or as far southwest as Catonsville and transport them to a hospital, clinic or radiation center.

It was the one from Cockeysville to GBMC, though, that has had a major impact on both of their lives.

“If it weren’t for people like Jim I’d be dead,” Fitzgibbons said.

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The American Cancer Society needs volunteer drivers throughout Maryland and the Washington, D.C., region to help provide transportation for cancer patients receiving treatment at various facilities. Drivers’ schedules are flexible.

To volunteer, call 1-800-227-2345 or go to: cancer.org/drive.

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