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.