Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dying on the job: it’s a mean surprise

I talk to truckers all the time about cases where drivers have heart attacks or strokes or some medical event that ends their lives while on the job. Recently, one driver told me he figured as much time as he spends alone in his truck, he thinks about it a lot and this is where he thinks he will draw his last breath. In his opinion – and I agree – getting killed on the job would be one very tragic way to be outta here, but dying from natural causes while on the job would be a lousy kick in the teeth.

We were discussing the most recent case where a Canadian driver went missing while driving in Wyoming. Clark Sutherland of Langley, BC, last spoke to his wife on May 29, at which time he complained he was sick. Christine Sutherland drove her husband’s entire route to Cheyenne stopping at truck stops and passing out flyers.

On June 9, Sutherland was found dead in his truck in a rest area. The early assessment is he died in his sleep.

I don’t know how many times I have worked on stories like this one, where the driver was talking to his wife on the phone earlier and said he did not feel well, or had to lie down awhile. And then she couldn’t get him on the phone. Usually, bad news is not far behind.

If you’re a trucker, you have to wonder if this might happen to you. But you are not the only hard worker to think about this morbid subject.

On June 13, when I heard that NBC’s Tim Russert had collapsed at his Washington office while doing voiceovers for his evening show, I could relate. It shocked me, like every other journalist in the nation. Not only was he a first-class newsman, but he typified the best of my generation. Russert was a hard-driven, high-octane kind of journalist who really pushed himself through long stressful days. As you probably have heard it said a hundred times this week, for 16 years he moderated “Meet the Press” and was NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief. He went to Woodstock and, in my book, he gets extra points for that.

He had heart problems but kept them at bay with exercise and meds. On the afternoon of June 13, Russert was doing voiceovers for his evening show. That’s a technique where an “off-camera” voice is prerecorded to be used as commentary with whatever show or segment you’re working on. Mark Reddig, host of “Land Line Now” stays late and does voiceovers all the time. Often, it’s late, you’ve worked all day, haven’t got more than 10 feet from your chair twice all day, and you and the sound engineer are both dog tired.

In this way, journalists like us are more like truckers than you would think. All of us who work like maniacs are fearful of departing this life while on the job. I’ve been listening to what everyone says about Tim Russert’s untimely demise all week long and making comments like: “when it’s your time, it’s your time” or “there’s worse things in life than death,” or a number of such Woody Allen-type quotations. But the truth is, there’s nothing that makes that sudden, unplanned, very permanent exodus OK.

Leaving that way is a really mean surprise.


  1. I have family histry of heart disease, work butt off to make a dime, pay child support yadda yadda. This is my secret worst fear.

  2. I think that I understand the light-spirited nature of this message - "mean surprise". Death is a nasty shock, especially when unexpected. HOWEVER, we all should know that life on this world is temporary, and that GREAT things are ahead, if we will just claim Acts 16:31 "Believe on the LORD Jesus Christ and you shall be saved."

    The shock, of course, is for the family left behind here on Earth. And it is tragic to depart without warning, alone, and at the helm of our career. (sidenote: Do what you love!)

    For those of us left here, I try to relate it to a story of someone who 'always wanted to retire to Hawaii.' If they did in fact retire, and were able to move to Hawaii, we would be happy for them and wish them well. So much more it is for those who die and leave this Earth to go to the kingdom of Heaven. Yes, it's even better than Hawaii.

  3. You are so right ! A friend of mine had a stroke while backed up to the dock. Workers found him when they came back from lunch, an wondered why he was still there. I found another driver at "little America " in Wyoming , I knocked on the door. And as a hostler for a grocery Dist. I was asked to move an O/O `s truck to a secure location ! He had dropped while unloading. I don`t think its a "mean surprise", I just think when god calls our soles go running !

  4. When I am home on Sunday a.m. the wife and I always watch Meet the Press. We say let's see what Tim has to say! He'll be missed by us.

  5. I don't see this message as light-spirited. Dying on the job, may be a thousand miles from home, is a crummy surprise for your family And the one who was planning on spending her retirement with you. Many costs are not covered by insurance, adding to the grief and shock.

  6. Then there are those of us who run or ran team with our husbands/wives.
    I lost my husband to a massive heart attack while driving our truck. He saved my life as I was asleep in the sleeper. I have always thought that the taillights
    should be able to give a warning that a driver is in trouble. after seeing what my husband could physically do, I am even more certain that we need something like that so a driver could flip a switch or push a button on the wheel or in the sleeper.CINDERELLA

  7. As our population ages and the stress of driving seems to rise daily, I am surprised there aren't more heart attacks, strokes and aneurysms in all kinds of vehicles. That may be yet to come. For long haul drivers with medical problems, I'd like to see someone come up with a nationwide panic button system that could summon emergency first responders wherever and whenever. It could be useful for more than medical emergencies, too...

  8. My worst fear, really. Is there any stats on how mnay drivers die on the job? In the truck, natural cuases? I would like to see numbers.

  9. If they would revise 392.60, so that drivers could have someone with them, in the event of a problem, help could be summoned right away. In some cases, like when the truckdriver crossed the median wall, bursting into flames, it might just really make the road safer for everyone.


Leave a comment here.