'Are you OK?' -- the most important question in emergency situations OTR, from accidents to kidney stones

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Updated Jul 31, 2021

Back in the early nineties, I was running Pennsylvania quite a bit for an outfit out of the Midwest. The dispatcher there was one of the best I'd ever had. The older drivers would say, "If Charlie can't find you a load, there just ain't no freight."

I held Charlie in high esteem. Always quick with a joke, he had a way of making you feel like you were his No. 1 driver. Charlie had once been OTR himself, but a vague set of circumstances sidelined him. Some said it was a back injury. Others, a DUI. It didn't matter to me. Some of the best dispatchers I ever had were ex-truckers the boss kept around after they got in trouble.

One night on the Pennsylvania Pike I was napping in one of those little pull-over areas they used to have. A little after six in the morning a tractor-trailer jackknifed, round-housing the rear-end of my trailer in the process. The impact was so hard it catapulted me out of bed while jerking 22 pallets of seed corn against the back doors so hard they buckled. Theirs was a team truck. One driver said the other was trying to get off the road to relieve himself, and the black ice on the berm got him.

By the time the state patrol arrived, made out their report, and took me up the road so I could use a payphone, it was coming up on 8 a.m. Charlie answered the phone, a little worse for wear, like maybe he hadn't had his first cup of joe. I hated talking to Charlie this early -- 7:58 a.m. just was not in his wheelhouse.

And I was pretty shaken up, but I explained to him what had happened, as well as I could. 

"Is the truck hurt?" he said.

Call me thin-skinned, but ... Jesus, Charlie! Is the truck hurt? Is the truck hurt?

"Yes, sir. It is," I said. 

[Related: The curse of the to-go cup: Coffee counter conversation one missing bridge across the divide]

A mechanic had to be called out to secure the buckled doors with chains, boards, and binders. We then nursed it over to his shop. It took most of the day to get the trailer squared away, and we barely got the load kicked off before the receiver left for the day.

When I finally called in empty, Charlie had awoken.

"I don't suppose anyone has asked you this, but are you OK?" he said.

"Oh, yeah. I'm OK."

Somehow, to the Paul of the early 1990s, to suggest that one wasn't OK was an undertaking fraught with risk and shame. If you weren't OK, hey ... you might not be that No. 1 driver anymore. Answer the question truthfully -- "Well, I've been hemmed in at a truck shop most of the day, I'm starving because I haven't eaten since yesterday, my back is killing me from when I got knocked out of the bunk, and frankly I could use a hot  shower"... -- and you might just come across as a weenie.

Or so it seemed to me at age 33.  

A few weeks ago, I had to call the guy who, in a sense, might be a stand-in for Charlie at the company I wound up at a few years after leaving Charlie's outfit. This time I really wasn't OK, and there was no faking it. I would not be able to haul the load they had me scheduled to pick up early the next morning. My wife informed me I had been delirious in my sleep with a fever. She took my temperature and it was 102.7.  My kidney was killing me and I was suddenly incontinent.

The voice on the other end of that call was different than Charlie's: "I'm not worried about that load. I'm worried about you. Get yourself to the hospital." 

The diagnosis was a septic kidney, all due to a kidney stone the size of an M&M. It would take two surgeries and three weeks of missed work to make me whole again. I had nursed  the stone all the way from Pioneer, Tennessee, to southern Michigan, back to Ohio, and home to Indiana. I thought it would resolve itself, but I was wrong.

Maybe, just maybe, you don't know who you're really working for until you cry uncle.  

[Related: After the accident: Coping, personal perspectives, first-responder heroics and practical guidance]