Finding help

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.

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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.

If you need immediate medical aid, and you’re at a truck stop or close to one, your best bet is to find an employee. Carl Wroblewski, fuel desk clerk at the Greater Chicago 1-55 travel plaza in Bolingbrook, Ill., keeps at his fingertips the phone numbers of the local hospital emergency room and cab company. “If it means calling 911 for a true emergency or just helping a trucker get to a doc, we’re happy to point them in the right direction,” Wroblewski says.

Truck stop managers are well versed in directing ailing truckers to hospitals. Some have a list of area volunteers who might help with transportation if the trucker needs a ride.

The Rev. Joe Hunter, director of TruckStop Ministries, says any of the chaplains at truck stop chapels around the country will assist truckers by providing phone numbers and directions to area medical clinics.

At locales other than a truck stop, finding transportation often is more of a problem.

Owner-operator Jeff Clark of Kewaunee, Wis., was on a loading dock when a worker dropped a pallet on his foot. The pain was so bad that he thought his foot might be broken. The dockworker asked a secretary to give Clark a ride to the ER, but she refused, saying she didn’t want a trucker in her car. Eventually, another employee took him.

“I was at the mercy of someone to take me to get an X-ray, wait for me to be treated and return me to my truck,” says Clark, whose foot wasn’t broken. “It’s not a great feeling.”

Clark also hasn’t liked being overweight and at risk for heart disease, so he decided to shed his sedentary habits and begin a fitness program. In the past two years, he’s finished three marathons and is training for his fourth. His focus on health helped him appreciate the complex health obstacles truckers face as they attempt to change their lifestyles, so he wrote a book, Hey, We’re Dying Out Here: The Truth Behind the Trucker Shortage (Outskirts Press).

Another option for getting to a clinic is calling 911. Glenn Wolf of Brainerd, Minn., injured his back unloading furniture. He didn’t know how severe it was until he couldn’t get out of his bunk one morning. He called 911, and the operator dispatched an ambulance to the truck stop. Paramedics took him to the emergency room, and a kind police officer returned him to his truck.

“I had to spend the next three days in my cab at the truck stop, taking painkillers and muscle relaxants until I was well enough to drive home,” Wolf says. He drove home still in pain, but without any other choice.

If you have a medical emergency while driving and there is no truck stop nearby, no city big enough to have a health care facility, or no time to stop, the best option is to call 911. An area operator will direct you to the closest medical center or dispatch an ambulance to transport you from the roadside.

For less serious situations, call your dispatcher to help locate the phone number of a nearby doctor, clinic or hospital. Some GPS systems that include addresses of hotels or truck stops also can be used to locate health care facilities.

McElligott is used to truckers coming in with sacks of over-the-counter remedies or old prescriptions they’ve used to try to self-treat their conditions. “By the time I see a sick trucker, they are really sick,” he says. “Getting to a health care provider should not be as difficult as it is, but that’s starting to change.”

Picking your provider
If you’re in a city large enough to offer many choices for health care, where should you go?

Pros: 24/7 emergency care, usually accept cash or credit cards and will make provisions for long-term payments, pharmacy usually on site, might have truck parking, ambulance service from truck stops or roadside.

Cons: Long waits, limited truck parking in urban areas, premium prices on basic services.
Best choice: For life-threatening symptoms or after-hour emergencies.

Pros: Reasonably priced office visits, accept cash or credit payment and most major health insurance, no appointments necessary, most have lab and X-ray facilities on-site.

Cons: First-come, first-served policy can mean long waits, limited or no truck parking, usually no pharmacy on site, limited night or weekend hours.

Best choice: For complications from chronic medical conditions that occur on a long trip, easily treated conditions such as cold and flu or simple injuries such as sprains and wounds.

Pros: Expertise with disease or conditions, affiliations with other specialists, hospital privileges.

Cons: Appointments necessary, limited office hours, some physicians won’t accept walk-ins or patients without a referral, more expensive office visits, limited or no truck parking.

Best choice: For complications best treated by a specialist, including chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or gastrointestinal and orthopedic problems. Your regular physician may help arrange an appointment for you if you need immediate attention.

The most convenient health care providers are truck stop clinics. Some aspiring chains opened and quickly failed in recent years, but the concept has been revived. If the big plans of two fledgling companies succeed, there will be dozens of clinics in a few years.

In addition to their basic services, the clinics can give a professional opinion about whether you need more advanced care and how quickly it’s needed. Dr. John McElligott of Professional Drivers Medical Depots says he has sent more than 1,000 truckers to emergency rooms in the past year.

Location: Texas side of Texarkana off Interstate 30 (U.S. Highway 71 North)
Services: Truck parking, walk-in services, comprehensive health care, DOT physicals, drug screening, emergency first aid, minor medical and other services.
Cost: $79 per office visit; accepts cash, credit, Comdata checks, debit and major health insurance.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Information: (903) 794-6339,

Locations: Petro Stopping Centers in Knoxville, Tenn., West Memphis, Ark., and Atlanta (I-285), Sapp Bros. Truck Stop in Peru, Ill. The chain plans to open 70 more clinics by 2010.
Services: Located next to or near major truck stops with priority for truck drivers, offers DOT physicals, drug screening, minor medical, some prescription services, flu shots, free lab screening, access to national hospital services and wellness programs
Cost: $75 per office visit; Accepts cash, credit and insurance plans.
Information:, including hours and phone numbers of individual locations.

Locations: Cartersville, Ga., next to the Pilot Travel Center. A second facility was to open in February next to the Pilot in Knoxville, Tenn., and seven more Pilot locations are planned for summer openings. The companies have teamed up to create a coast-to-coast network of retail medical clinics.
Services: Wellness programs, minor medical, DOT physicals and drug screening, major medical management, prescriptions services at some locations, telephone health coaching, no appointments needed.
Cost: $45 and up for an office visit. Major medical insurance, cash and credit cards accepted.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Information: (602) 692-2734,

Signs you need to call for help
How do you know if you are sick enough to need immediate medical attention or well enough to spend several hours getting home? If you experience any of these symptoms, go directly to a medical clinic or emergency room:

  • Persistent fever over 100 degrees accompanied by chills and shaking
  • Chest pressure or pain that radiates to arm, jaw or shoulder
  • Sudden, severe headache
  • Shortness of breath with a cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Blood in stools or vomit
  • Pain on the inside of leg, hot swollen legs
  • Persistent chest pain
  • Persistent shortness of breath
  • Uncontrollable vomiting/persistent abdominal pain
  • Fainting
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Loss of balance
  • Loss of vision
  • Persistent sweating
  • Decreased mental status