Emergencies at Home

A frantic call from a loved one is a driver’s worst nightmare.

It all happened so fast.

Joseph H. Robertson III and his trainer, Emily Knight, were 100 miles south of Minneapolis when Robertson’s cell phone rang.

It was his wife, Angie.

Knight saw the color drain from his face and knew it was bad.

“What’s wrong? she asked.

“It’s my son,” Robertson said. “He was hit by a car. It’s bad. I’ve got to get out of here.”

Joseph H. Robertson IV, 12, had been struck while running home from school in Winston-Salem, N.C. He had been rushed to the hospital with a skull fracture, a broken pelvis and bruised kidneys. His brain was swelling, and he was in a coma in critical condition.

Being hundreds of miles away from loved ones when a personal crisis strikes at home can be an overwhelming, gut-wrenching experience. But truckers often have to deal with the death or sudden illness of an immediate family member, relationship problems and unexpected financial situations while on the road.

Often, a wave of emotions crash down on the driver’s world – fear, panic, shock guilt, anger and depression. These emotions sometimes can even lead to physical reactions including nausea, headaches, stomach aches and back pain.

Company cooperation
Knight called their company, Prime Inc., as Robertson talked on the cell. It was April 7. Robertson, formerly a decorated Greensboro, N.C., police officer, was new to driving. This was his first job behind the wheel of a big rig, and he had been with the company only since Jan. 1.

“We had him on a plane within two hours,” says his fleet manager at Prime, Rick Crawford. “We got him home the same night.”

The impact of the wreck sent the youngster onto the hood, into the windshield and over the top of the car. When he landed, he hit the back of his head. “He was carrying about 50 pounds of books in his backpack, and he may have landed on that and we think that helped a little,” Robertson says.

Robertson, 41, had called his son, who he calls “tall and skinny like his dad,” less than an hour before, forgetting the boy would not yet be home, held up at school with math tutoring. He left a message.

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“After the call I was trying to keep myself together and call my relatives while Emily called the company,” says Robertson.

“When I first got the call, I thought, ‘it’s 12 or more back home in this truck.’ I knew that wasn’t going to satisfy me. I knew I couldn’t get there quick enough. Then Emily told me I’d be flying home. She did it and they did it at the company. It was smooth. They tried to get us back to Chicago airport, but there was too much traffic so we went on to Minneapolis/St. Paul.

“The ticket was waiting. But I had to turn my cell off on the plane. I’d got on knowing he was alive and in a coma, but all the way home I didn’t know if he’d be there when I got home.”

Back at home
When Robertson arrived at Brenners Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem, his only child was still in a coma, and he’d stay there for eight days. The boy’s body had tried to come out of it, but doctors kept him in the coma so that his swelling brain would have more time to heal itself. The skull fracture had not been a major problem, but the brain had been bruised and was swollen, and for the boy to make it all the way back, that swelling had to be eased.
After the coma came the suspense of wondering whether Joseph IV would recover completely.

Crawford kept in touch with Robertson by phone as the days went by with Joseph IV in the coma. “I also let him know that his job was not in jeopardy, that we would wait for him as long as it took to get resolved to a point where he could leave home and come back,” he says.

Fortunately, Robertson’s son is making a remarkable recovery. “He’s back. He’s like he was before. He’s back to making As and Bs in school like he used to,” Robertson says. “He’s still in a wheelchair, but that’s basically so that the pelvis can heal before he gets up and walks and runs again. He doesn’t have seizures or have to take medication for seizures or medication for pain.

“It’s really pretty miraculous.”

Critical decisions
The choice of how and when to get home after a personal emergency is ultimately up to the driver. But fleet officials are almost always happy to assist – offering advice and logistical help.

Harold Kendrew of Alexandria, La., was working for Tyson a couple of years ago when he received word that his father had died after a long illness. The company immediately offered to fly him home from Louisville, Ky. “I don’t like to fly, and since I knew I would have to wait for other family members to get home, I decided to drive back,” says Kendrew, who now drives for Total Logistics Control. “The company found a truck for the load I was under and another load heading south, which I took. They were very helpful.”

Good companies never back their drivers into a corner during a true crisis. Tales of drivers abandoning their loads in the middle of nowhere because of a company being unreasonable in an emergency situation are not common, according to owner-operator Kelvin Sanders of Radcliff, Ky., who is leased to CalArk.

“Drivers really have the last say,” Sanders says. “I don’t know of a company that wouldn’t allow you to go home if you’ve got a personal emergency at home. I think almost all companies will work with you. They really don’t want you out there on the road if your mind is occupied with a lot of emotions. That’s unsafe.”

In Robertson’s situation, Crawford, who has 90 trucks to command, called in his assistant, the company’s travel people and sales staff to help Robertson out. He also had the responsibility of caring for the load Robertson and Knight were hauling.

“They were carrying a time-sensitive load when Joseph got the call,” Crawford says. “Once we knew Minneapolis, travel worked out the time he’d get there and routed him home the fastest way they could. Once he left, the lead seat drove solo to a terminal in Chicago. She had time on her log to get there, and she could take her forced break there. We found a team in that area that had a day to spare so we sent them to pick up the team load. They moved that, and we brought another team in to take the load they were waiting for.

“It’s networking, working with our travel people and sales people. The travel people got him home. We kept sales in touch with what was going on and just which drop yard the load was going to. The sales people kept in touch with the client, letting them know we had an emergency but their load was secure and en route and giving them the new times.”
–Randy Grider contributed to this report.

Stay in Touch
Remember the old joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer is “Practice, practice, practice!” When trucking industry executives were asked how drivers and companies find a fast solution when a driver gets bad news on the road, they said, “Communicate, communicate, communicate!”

“Once a driver is hired, their relationship with their fleet manager is the most important relationship on the job,” says Mark MacGillivray, an in-house recruiter at Transport America. “That personal relationship is huge, and it’s the biggest factor in crisis management.”

When a driver gets news of a crisis at home while he’s thousands of miles away on the road, what’s the first step?

Craig Harper, chief operating officer for J.B. Hunt Transport, advises drivers to contact their fleet manager, project manager or driver manager immediately and fill him or her in on the situation. Then the company can take action.

“In a crisis situation we basically let our drivers tell us what they need and we make it happen,” Harper says. “Our driver and his or her safety are our No. 1 priority. We visit with the driver and make sure they are doing all right emotionally. We then respond basically however the driver needs us to respond. Drivers, like anyone, react differently to certain situations. Some want a load through their home; others want to immediately get out of the truck and fly home.

“For example, a driver with a death in the family, if we are involved, we evaluate what the driver’s needs are first,” Harper says. “We try to find out if the driver expected this news or was it a shock. In some situations, professional help or counseling may be needed. The most important thing is working with that manager and jointly getting a plan together to get the driver home in the most appropriate way.”

Marten Transport Safety Director Dan Peterson also asks that drivers who run into a crisis on the road let them know all of the circumstances.

“Once we are notified of a situation we evaluate the request and determine the best solution,” says Peterson. “It may be swapping loads with another driver, letting the driver drive home with an empty trailer and/or even making arrangements to get to an airport if necessary.”

Companies have various ways of helping and making sure both the driver and the load get taken care of. Companies can quickly adapt their everyday policies to meet an emergency.

“We’re used to moving drivers, to having different terminals suddenly have to change plans, to changes in destinations or pickup or delivery times, and we can use those procedures when we have to get a driver home in a hurry,” says MacGillivray.

A lot of companies, J.B. Hunt for example, use TransAlive, a voluntary service that specializes in meeting the needs of the drivers and their families when they experience an accident, illness, heart attack or even death on the highway.

“Another assistance we use is hiring an adjuster to assist drivers by taking them to the airport, packing their belongings or any other help a driver may need,” Harper says. “We really try to do what each case dictates and how we would want to be treated if in the same situation. Each individual event is handled specifically for that driver’s needs.”

Drivers need to know what their company will do if they run head on into a crisis on the road. Guessing, wishing and hoping won’t do it. Be prepared.

When drivers sign on, they should ask questions about how a company handles a crisis on the road during orientation and “get that commitment and understanding as they get started with a new company,” Harper says.

One of the things to find out during orientation is whether your carrier has counselors and/or other in-house help available.

“Our drivers can reach a counselor 24 hours a day, any day of the week,” says Marten’s Peterson. “It’s completely confidential and free of charge to the employee. This resource offers individuals the opportunity to speak to someone about health, family, financial and personal issues.”

If a possible crisis is looming – a terminally ill parent at home perhaps – drivers need to work with their companies once they know the possibility of a sudden crisis is there.

“If there is a possibility something might happen, the driver should let their manager know as soon as they get that information,” says Harper. “In most cases, we would try to find local or dedicated work as a temporary solution to keep the driver close to home.”

Harper says if J.B. Hunt can’t find local or regional work, they will plan ahead and be ready to work with their driver to get him or her home either with a load or by air, “whichever the driver desires.”

Marten’s Peterson says the driver would ideally notify the company that something might come up. “During this time we can have a driver do local work, get a dedicated run temporarily or request a leave of absence.”

Companies are ready to help when a driver runs into a crisis, but if that crisis is of their own making, a company may have limited responses.

“In the case of an arrest, each case stands on its own,” says Harper. “As a general rule, if the driver is arrested for a serious offense (murder, child abuse, major crime), we do very little. In other cases, such as hot checks, child support issues, alimony, etc., we may, depending on the situation, help the driver get home or to a place where he or she can deal with the problem. We provide no legal assistance for a problem that is personal in nature.”

But J.B. Hunt offers help in many situation where the driver has a legal issue as a result of the job.

“An example would be a traffic ticket as a result of an accident,” Harper says. “We defend the traffic ticket if it helps us mitigate our loss. We do not help with traffic tickets that the driver may receive as a result of just poor judgment, such as speeding or running traffic control devices. Although, on occasion, we may point the driver to an attorney to help at his or her expense.”

In the end what happens is part of the give and take between the company and its drivers, MacGillivray says. “There’s no one set practice,” he says. “But if drivers keep us informed and there is a strong communication between the driver and the fleet manager, odds are we’ll find the best solution as fast as possible.”

Be Prepared
We plan for the worst. Schools have fire drills. Banks stage fake robberies. Communities have disaster response procedures. But how will you respond if tragedy strikes at home and you’re hundreds of miles away?

You never know how you’ll respond to personal catastrophe until it comes. Dr. Emily Smith, a licensed professional counselor and crisis intervention specialist, says it’s best to meet that uncertainty head on with a planned response. “Research has shown us that even though we might not respond exactly according to plan in an emergency, we respond better than we would with no plan,” she says.

Making a plan like this is not a welcome task, but it’s a necessary one.

“No one likes to talk about this,” Smith says. “But it makes sense to have a plan in place for the possible ‘what ifs’ that no one likes to think about.” So get together with spouse, children, relatives, close friends, your employer, your pastor and anybody else who might play a role and figure out how your family and you will respond to events you pray will never happen.

First, think about how you want to be notified.

“People differ in how they want to hear sad or traumatic news,” Smith says. “For example, when a person dies in the military, the protocol is to go through the Red Cross. But some people say they don’t want to hear it from a stranger; they want to hear it from somebody they know.” Do you want your dispatcher to be the bearer of bad news via QUALCOMM, or would you rather hear it from family or close friends via telephone?

Also, think about when you’d like to be informed. Is right away OK, or would you rather wait until you’ve stopped for the night? As a matter of safety, many drivers leave cell phones off while driving. Do you want to hear about a tragedy in a phone message?

Learn your employer’s policy for drivers who are on the road when a crisis happens at home. Know what to expect from them, and show them you’re concerned about this matter.

The next consideration is how you will react immediately upon receiving bad news. If you’re not driving at the time, make sure to get focused before getting behind the wheel. But if you are driving, “the driver’s first decision is taking care of his safety and the safety of those around him,” Smith says. “Get to a safe place, and stop driving the truck.” A rest area or a truckstop is best, but a vacant lot or a ramp shoulder will do.

Then start talking to others. “Most of the trauma counseling literature will tell you that it’s a real good idea to talk with people,” Smith says. “Don’t be afraid to reach out and tell somebody you’ve just received some very bad news. Most people want to hear about it because they want to help, by listening or calling a family member or friend for you.”

After receiving very distressing news, the worst thing you can do is continue to drive or isolate yourself by pulling off where nobody is around. “I don’t recommend any of that,” Smith says. “We do know that talking about trauma is the best way to begin to deal with it. That’s why they send teams of crisis management people to disaster areas: to get people to talk about the event as soon as possible.” Smith says this reduces stress and the chances of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “This is fairly well supported in research,” she says.

Of course, people respond differently to different situations. “It depends on how close the driver is to the deceased or how much he valued the house that burnt down,” Smith says. Some people might remain undisturbed; others might be incapacitated by grief and shock. But there are some “aftershock” symptoms you can watch for in yourself that will alert you that you’re under stress.

The most obvious of these will be confusion and trouble paying attention because your mind is overloaded with trying to process the tragic news. If these symptoms occur while you’re driving, you’re in an emergency situation so stop the truck before you cause a second tragedy.

Other symptoms include becoming physically ill, crying without warning or developing a twitch. “These are all possible responses that are perfectly normal,” Smith says.

Other symptoms might develop right away or within a few hours or days. Some of them might reflect the tragedy. For example, if you lost your house to a fire, you might become overly upset at the sight of a driver smoking near the fuel island. If a loved one was violently attacked, you might become hyper vigilant, noticing every movement and sound and being suspicious of everybody you see. You might visualize the tragedy in your mind and replay it over and over again, and sleeping might become difficult.

Signs of emotional stress can range from anger and panic to a total shutdown. “Some people just go into shock,” Smith says. “They experience a complete loss of emotional control, and they might get either super hyper vigilant or become totally oblivious to their surroundings.” Emotional stress will cause anger about things you don’t usually get angry about.

“The driver who’s away will feel likely some guilt,” Smith says. “He will feel that if he was there he could have prevented the tragedy. He might get angry or anxious, or he might go into total denial and think it could not have happened.”

These are some symptoms of PTSD, and they are usually temporary. “PTSD doesn’t happen to everybody,” Smith says. “We’re all different. A lot of that depends on what else might be going on.” In other words, if you’re already under a lot of stress due to other events, your reaction to news of a tragedy back home is likely to be more severe.

But remember this is all normal. “These are all possible responses to trauma,” Smith says. “You want to keep your eye on them, and if after a week or 10 days you’re still not sleeping, and your consumption of drugs or alcohol has escalated, seek professional help in the medical and mental health fields.”

Also, get back to the basics of taking care of yourself. Watch the caffeine, nicotine and alcohol intake. Eat sensibly and regularly. Avoid big decisions or make them with the help of somebody you trust.

“The people you love are hurting,” Smith says. They’re going to need you as stable as you can be. “Talk with them,” she says. “Talk, talk, talk, and just kind of nurture and take care of them and yourself. Expect that there will be waves of sadness, grief and anger. They will get smaller and come less often, and you might need to get some help with that. If you believe you’ll get better, then you will. But if you don’t, and these clusters of symptoms keep occurring and messing up your life, then seek professional help.”