Finding help

| December 12, 2008

Jeff Clark and his dog, Jack, travel together on long hauls. Clark’s book Hey, We’re Dying Out Here addresses the serious health issues truckers face.

In March 2002, Tim Fleming, an independent operator from Hoodland, Ore., called his wife, Rose, and told her he felt ill. Like most truckers, he’s used to toughing out aches and pains until either they resolve or he gets home to see his doctor. Before what he called the “mother of all stomachaches,” he never had an illness bad enough to stop driving.

At first, Rose wasn’t worried. But by the time Fleming reached a truck stop in Dallas, he was convinced he had a violent case of food poisoning. For two days he rode waves of sickness until finally his wife, frantic with worry, tried to get him medical help.

“When he said he felt sicker than he had ever felt before, I knew it was time to take action,” Rose says. Known in the trucking community as Retread Rose, the web administrator of Truck.Net Drivers RoundTable Forums knew all about truckers’ frustrating lack of access to health care.

She placed a call to Kathy Harder of Loved Ones and Drivers Support (LOADS), a support group for truckers’ families. Harder immediately searched her membership in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She found a good Samaritan, the wife of a Dallas trucker, who drove to the truck stop.

Rose says her husband, barely conscious on the way to the hospital, was rushed into surgery for a life-threatening ruptured appendix. His doctors said he would not have made it through the night without the surgery.

Like Fleming, many truckers are inclined to drive until they drop, or at least until they’re home and can visit a familiar health care provider. Stories abound about truckers driving with raging fevers, broken bones, chest pains, gastric distress and other ailments that would send non-truckers to their doctor’s office or local emergency room.

Deciding to keep driving instead of seeking medical help can carry costs that many truckers don’t realize, says Dr. John McElligott, chairman and CEO of a new chain of medical clinics, Professional Drivers Medical Depots. “Recovery from complications of a treatable infection requires much more downtime than the time you’d spend to get early appropriate treatment,” he says.

Some of the most common ailments, based on McElligott’s 2007 survey of more than 2,000 truckers, are sleep apnea, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease. “These guys are high risks for serious medical conditions that are made worse by their limited access to medical care,” he says. So it’s no surprise that the average life expectancy of a trucker is only 61, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That’s 15 years less than the average American male.

But what’s the smartest way to get help away from home when you’re too sick to drive another mile? Assuming you aren’t lucky enough to be near one of a small but growing number of truck stop clinics, your first challenge is finding the nearest place to get help. The second is getting there.

After Tim’s experience, Rose Fleming searched the Internet for resources to help drivers who have medical emergencies on the road. Through bulletin boards, she asked truckers what they had done. Beyond calling 911, the options were limited. Few doctor’s offices have truck parking, and most emergencies don’t occur during regular office hours.

“It’s no wonder that the mortality rate among truckers is so much higher than other professions,” Rose says.

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