Before deciding to become a professional truck driver in 2005, Glenn Helmly spent 25 years working as an EMT, often coming to the aid of people who were facing life-threatening situations.
Little did Helmly know when he was working as an emergency first-responder that years later, in 2020, he and his team driver would have to deal with a life-and-death crisis of their own during the global COVID-19 pandemic. While hundreds of miles from home, Helmly and his team driver fell ill — and encountered a health care system that was not equipped to deal patients who were also professional drivers and hauling a trailer loaded with freight.
Helmly said he became a truck driver because he felt the need to help someone else — his daughter, who was considering a nursing career.
“She started talking about going to nursing school when she was a junior in high school,” he said. “Emergency medical services may provide a decent living, but it doesn’t pay a lot. I looked at my wife at the time and told her, ‘We’re going to send her to college.’”
Helmly talked to a friend who drove for Schneider about becoming a driver. The friend told him trucking was a good career, but warned that driving would take away from his personal life.
“He told me to come ride with him for a week and I’d change my mind about driving a truck,” Helmly said.
Just the opposite happened. In 2005 Helmly went to work driving for Schneider, but as the friend had warned him, the new job took a toll on his personal life.
“When I started driving a truck, I had been married 20 years. I was divorced by year 25 because I was spending more time on the road than I was at home, and we lost that connection,” Helmly said.
Three years ago, Helmly went to work for Tribe Express of Gainesville, Georgia.
He’s always preferred working as a team driver and after a second team driver left him, Helmly remembered that a 20-year friend and former CDL holder, Melissa Labigang, had expressed an interest in getting back on the road. He approached her with the proposal of driving as a team.
“I told her, ‘You can either take it and run with it, or you can pass it up,’” Helmly said.
Labigang decided to run with it.
The safety manager at Tribe agreed to let Helmly train Labigang after she went to a technical school and regained her CDL. In December 2018, Labigang completed her training and the two started driving together.
Not only are the two team members on the road; when not driving, they are roommates, living in Helmly’s four-bedroom home in Reidsville, Georgia. Each has separate quarters in the home, and Labigang helps with expenses.
Helmly clarifies that he and Labigang are not romantically involved; each is in a relationship with someone else. The living arrangement is a sensible matter of convenience, he said, because the team’s schedule involves making a 17-day run followed by a four-day break at home before leaving for another 17-day run.
On Tuesday, July 21, 2020, the two left on what should have been a routine 17-day trip.
But then … on Thursday, July 30, Helmly and Labigang delivered a load to a facility in Atlanta, where their temperature was checked as part of the company’s COVID-19 protocol. Helmly’s registered at 99.3, while Labigang’s was normal.
Before the temperature check, Helmly had been walking around his truck in the sun, and thought the heat was the cause of his elevated temperature. So, the team picked up the next trailer and headed for Fort Worth, Texas.
By the time they arrived at Fort Worth, planning to drop their trailer, pick up another and head to Los Angeles, about noon on Friday, July 31, Helmly said he was not feeling well. It was nothing specific, he noted; he just didn’t feel “right.” When he hit the sleeper that night (Helmly drives days; Labigang drives at night), Helmly said he still had a temperature.
The next day, when he got up, “every muscle hurt,” Helmly said.
By Sunday night, Aug. 2, Labigang was also running a fever. The team continued their run with a load pickup in Los Angeles, then on to San Francisco, where they would pick up yet another load and head back to Georgia. By Monday, Aug. 3, Helmly said he felt better but still not well. Labigang, on the other hand, felt worse. Helmly notified his driver-manager at Tribe, Kenny Phillips, who told the team to head home.
Phillips asked Helmly if they had COVID-19.
“I told him I didn’t know; I just didn’t feel good,” Helmly recalled. “I asked him to just get us back toward the Southeast in case one of us needed to get home. As we started across the country on Tuesday, Aug. 4, I knew something bad was wrong, and I could really start to feel it in my chest. I was getting short of breath. I’m not the skinniest, healthiest trucker around here at 300 pounds.”
By this time, both drivers were constantly running temperatures, which they could only suppress intermittently with Tylenol. On Wednesday, Aug. 5, the two were passing through Arizona on Interstate 40 — and things had not improved. Phillips instructed them to find a COVID-19 testing site.
“He said, ‘You need to go ahead and just stop somewhere and let’s get a test done … and we’ll figure out some way to get you all home,’” Helmly recalled Phillips telling the pair.
This was easier said than done.
Helmly said he figured the most likely place they would find an immediate-care center along the route would be in Amarillo, Texas. So, he started calling trying to find such a facility.
“The response I got really scared me, because a lot of places said, ‘Well, we normally test, but we don’t have any testing kits, so don’t come here — because we can’t really do anything for you,’” Helmly said. “Being a medical professional, I kept thinking, ‘Well, at least I could come and see a doctor. I can’t just keep getting kicked down the road.’”
The customer whose load Helmly and Labigang were carrying pushed out the delivery date, so a decision was made to drop their trailer at Tribe’s terminal in Terrell, Texas, near Dallas and head on to Georgia.
Helmly knew Flying J’s Dallas location had an urgent-care center for truck drivers, so Helmly placed a call there on Thursday, Aug. 6.
“The girl said, ‘Well, we can test you, but our results are taking two to three weeks come back — but we know we can tell pretty much by your symptoms if you have
COVID-19,’” Helmly said as he recalled the conversation.
But Tribe wanted the two to have an actual test, so the next stop was an urgent-care center in Terrell when they dropped the trailer. Unfortunately, by the time they got to the urgent care center, it was closed.
“The next morning (Friday, Aug. 7) when I called them, they were out of tests and wouldn’t have any until the next Monday,” Helmly said. So, he called Tribe and was told to head to an emergency room in Kilgore, Texas, 85 miles east of Terrell.
“As we walked in the door, the first thing they did was give us a piece of paper and tell us other places where we could get a free test in other clinics,” Helmly said.
“And I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m in a tractor-trailer. I can’t just go to some of these drive-in clinics. I had trouble getting into the ER parking lot!’ And then I got a little bit upset,” he continued. “I said, ‘I can hardly breathe, and if you don’t believe it, look at your security cameras and see how much trouble I had just walking in here.’ She said, ‘You’re fine; we’ll take care of you.’ And they treated us great.”
The hospital got X-rays of Helmly’s chest and did a COVID-19 test, telling him they were sure he would test positive — and he did.
“They didn’t swab Melissa because they knew if she’d been in the same truck as me, she’d have to be quarantined, too,” Helmly said.
Helmly’s chest X-ray did not look good, but the doctor agreed to let the two leave — as long as they headed straight to Georgia. They arrived back at Reidsville early Saturday, Aug. 8. Helmly said they both slept from Saturday through Monday.
Over the next days, friends helped nurse them back to health by bringing meals and offering moral support. After being quarantined until Aug. 21, Helmly and Labigang were retested. When the results came back negative, they went back to work Sept. 2.
Tribe paid Helmly and Labigang for the 14 days they were in quarantine. After that, they had to use a week’s vacation for one of the remaining weeks, and they received no compensation for the final five days.
After the frustrating, somewhat harrowing experience, Helmly has advice for drivers: First and foremost, wear your mask when at a shipper or receiver or at a truck stop, and wear gloves when fueling. Keep plenty of hand sanitizer in your truck.
“Make sure your company has a plan on how to handle the situation when drivers become ill on the road and possibly have COVID-19,” he said.
“If you are on the road, the minute you start running a fever, come down with a cough or your body starts aching, immediately start looking for a place to be tested,” he continued. “Call them beforehand; let them know what’s going on so that you don’t just walk in and ‘shock the system,’ because most places don’t want you to come in if you have a fever. They would rather come out in a mask and gloves and test you.”
That’s sound advice from a man who’s been on both sides of the equation.
Lyndon Finney’s publishing career spans over 55 years beginning with a reporter position with the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1965. Since then he’s been a newspaper editor at the Southwest Times Record, served five years as assistant managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock and from November 2004 through December 2019 served as editor of The Trucker. Between newspaper jobs he spent 14 years as director of communications at Baptist Health, Arkansas’ largest healthcare system. In addition to his publishing career he served for 46 years as organist at Little Rock’s largest Baptist church.