Updated: May 1, 2022
By Maria Piedrabuena
East End residents who need help getting to their medical appointments can now have their transportation needs met by a new service from OLA of Eastern Long Island.
It’s a crucial service for people with no other available means of transportation — and it can even be life-saving.
Recently, a five-week old infant had a high fever and a strange rash on her body. Her mother, fearing she had had a reaction to an immunization, wanted to take her to the pediatrician. Unable to drive — they usually walk to the doctor’s office — she called Alma Tovar, OLA’s transportation advocate since February when OLA launched the service on a temporary basis. Tovar picked mother and child up in a van and took her to the pediatric office of Dr. Harriet Hellman.
Once there, to the shock of all, Hellman quickly realized the infant had disseminated Lyme disease and possibly meningitis. Hellman said she knew that although an ambulance was not needed, the baby had to be seen as quickly as possible by the pediatric infectious disease specialists at Stony Brook University Hospital.
“I have never seen an infant that young with Lyme disease in 46 years,” Hellman said.
Tovar said she realized this was a serious case and immediately made arrangements and took the family to the hospital, where they had to stay for two weeks.
“The distance from my office in Southampton to Stony Brook University Hospital without transportation assistance would have delayed her care by days,” Hellman said.
Viable public transportation has long been a difficult and controversial issue in Suffolk County. The East End is particularly affected due to antiquated bus schedules, frequently late buses, not enough routes or bus stops — often unsheltered — as well as lack of funding. The county cut eight bus routes last year, three of which operated on the South Fork.
“We are beyond the need for a small fix,” OLA executive director Minerva Perez said. “We need viable public bus transportation now: Bus transportation should start earlier — 5 a.m. — end later — 12 a.m. — and should run at double the current frequency with a goal of at least two buses each hour,” Perez said.
While certain residents qualify for Suffolk County Accesible Transportation or town-sponsored shuttles, which are usually reserved for those 60 and older or currently disabled, others have no other transportation options. Depending on where they live, a trip to the doctor can be an hours-long journey.
“There have been so many times people have told me they have arrived too late to their medical appointments or not at all because of the bus or lack of transportation,” Tovar said. “It’s very hard.”
OLA — a non-partisan, nonprofit organization promoting social, economic, cultural and educational development for the East End Latino community since 2002 — is a long-time advocate for better public transportation. Thanks to two anonymous private donations earlier this year, the organization was able to start a limited and part-time free transportation service that helps people from Riverhead to Montauk. With those donations, OLA was able to get a minivan that seats seven and cover the expenses of its operation, hiring Tovar on a part-time basis. She started working in February.
“Alma is what you dream of when you think of a committed community advocate,” Perez said. “Her dedication and her compassion inform every action she takes.”
The goal was to try and at least partly alleviate a dire situation for many, as well as compile significant data and testimonies to present to East End towns and Suffolk County — information that accurately reflects the current state of public transportation, who is affected by it and why.
“We recognize that public bus transportation across Suffolk County has been lacking for many years,” she said. “The medical transportation service was only supposed to be a brief stop-gap measure to get vulnerable families and individuals through the winter.”
Now, thanks to a $20,000 grant from Southampton Bath and Tennis Foundation, OLA has been able to increase its transportation services to four days a week starting in mid-September.
Members of the Latino community are among those most affected by unreliable and inadequate public transportation, said Perez. Latinos regularly ride the bus from Riverhead to points East and vice-versa for work, school and other reasons, but when it comes to medical appointments things can get more complicated. Perez said that for some Latinos, OLA’s medical transportation van is a necessity that goes beyond getting from point A to point B, as was in the case of the infant with Lyme disease.
The service is available to all East End residents who need it, Perez said.
“We are trying to help the community, strengthen the bonds and trust between us,” Tovar said.
Tovar’s duties will include assessing the needs of community members seeking medical transportation, connecting those in need of transportation to existing means if they are eligible, driving people from their homes to their doctor appointments and returning them home. She also acts as liaison to a group of OLA transportation volunteers ready to help as needed. She is also compiling statistics, stories, video and audio of those without access to viable public bus transportation and speaking at legislative meetings to advocate for viable public bus transportation.
“Committing to viable public bus transport whether fixed- or non-fixed route is a path to environmentally sound and humane transportation for families in need, teens not yet able to drive, workers supporting our economy, college students not able to afford a car, and any community member finding themselves without a car for a variety of reasons.”
Meanwhile, the organization will continue with the transportation service, helping those who have no other way of getting to their medical appointments, like the infant with Lyme disease, whom the pediatrician said is now doing well and receiving treatment and being evaluated for other tick-borne diseases.
“I owe Alma a debt of gratitude,” Hellman said. “I will never forget her dedication and she should know that she unequivocally saved a life.”
Residents with medical transportation needs who do not qualify for town or county transportation please call OLA at 631-899-3441 for a screening.