Bottom Line
Something in the air
A silent killer in this trucker’s cab almost took her life

By Aaron Ladage
Staff Writer

When Terry Hirt began trucking in 1991, she never imagined that the job she loved could rob her of her good health so quickly and effectively.

Now 40, the OOIDA member from Rensselaer, NY, had worked for a number of different trucking companies during her first nine years of driving, none of which had caused her a significant health problem. But in the summer of 2000, while driving for Crete Carrier Corp., a tiny malfunction in her truck’s exhaust system almost ended her career – and her life.

Hirt had been working for Crete for about a year when the company put her behind the wheel of a brand-new, fresh-from-the-dealer Freightliner Century, complete with Detroit Diesel 460 engine – a dream come true for many truckers.

But Hirt said the dream quickly turned into a nightmare.

“That first Century was the one that did me in,” Hirt said. “I drove it for six months with the pipe right behind the turbo – the flange – cut short. They kept telling me ‘It’s not leaking exhaust, and anyway, that stuff won’t hurt you.’ And I kept saying ‘Yeah, but I’m dizzy. I can’t breathe.’ ”

More than her imagination
Before becoming a trucker, Hirt served for nine years as a track vehicle mechanic in the Army’s First Cavalry unit at Fort Hood in central Texas. After leaving the military, she jumped right into life on the road, starting out with New York-based carrier Carretta Trucking Inc., but she took her lifestyle and exercise regimens from the military along with her.

Hirt – whose muscular build is a tell-tale sign of her healthy lifestyle – carries weights, a portable step machine and a bicycle in the sleeper of her truck, and manages to exercise two to three days a week.

“Whenever I’m down, I drag my bike out and take off,” she said.

But Hirt’s healthy lifestyle wasn’t enough to protect her from the dangers lurking inside the cab of her truck. She first noticed something was up when she had several earaches in six months.

“I had about nine ear infections in my right ear and seven in my left,” Hirt said.

During this same time, Hirt’s heart began intermittently racing, which caused problems with her breathing. Doctors had trouble identifying what was causing her heart to speed up so unpredictably, and eventually fitted her with a heart monitor that she wore at all times to track and record her heartbeat.

“My heart would just take off,” Hirt said. “I’d be driving down the road, and it would be beating at 72, like it should be, and then bam – in a split second, it would jump up to 146.

“When your blood’s going that fast, you’re not breathing hard enough to take in the right amount of air. And then when you do, it’s polluted.”

Hirt’s vision also began to fail. Everything began to look slanted and distorted – when cars would pass her, it appeared to her as if her truck was moving to the left of the car, not the other way around. The straight white and yellow lines in the center of the road began to look like checkmarks.

“I had a major delay in my focus,” she said. “I was scared to death to look at my gauges, because when I looked down and then looked back at the road, it took a long time – way too long – for my eyes to focus again.”

From almost the moment she started having health problems, Hirt said she sought medical attention, but no one seemed to be able to properly diagnose her symptoms. Despite blurred sight, optometrists repeatedly told her she had 20/20 vision, and physicians found even less wrong.

“I was extremely dizzy, my heart was taking off, and I had doctors telling me, ‘You’re malingering – go back to work,’ ” Hirt said. “And I’m like, ‘Well, I’m going to kill somebody. I’m all messed up.’ ”

Worse yet, Hirt said, her employer didn’t believe her story. She said several mechanics at Crete told her there was no exhaust leak, and continued to send her out onto the road in the same truck.

“My fleet manager basically told me that it wasn’t the exhaust that messed me up, and that I just had an ear problem,” she said.

Only one doctor had ever even mentioned carbon monoxide as a possible cause for her problems.

“He wanted to put me in a (hyperbaric) chamber, but his boss said, ‘No, she’s not that bad. She’s out of the truck,’ ” she said. “But I slept in it that night. I had to get back in it.”

The breaking point
After six months battling multiple health problems, Hirt finally called it quits.

“It was the winter of 2000 when I finally got off the road,” she said. “My vision wouldn’t focus because my ears were always telling me I was falling and my eyes didn’t know what to focus on. It looked like I was going about 300 miles an hour. My brain couldn’t keep up with what I was seeing, because my eyes couldn’t focus.”

But before she left, Hirt finally convinced the manufacturer to take a look at her truck.

“Freightliner finally took the whole thing apart from the turbo back, and that first piece of pipe, right in the bend, was cut short,” she said.

Land Line’s calls to Freightliner and Detroit Diesel regarding Hirt’s situation were not returned. Emelia Klingelhoefer, administrative assistant for Crete, said her company had not had any problems with chronic carbon monoxide poisoning.

Hirt said her problem came from a flared piece of pipe that goes right up to the turbo where there’s a clamp.

“That flare was whacked short, and all the black soot was staying under the turbo

clamp, so nobody could see the black, and all the exhaust was coming in the truck with me.”

Hirt headed for home in New York, taking any job that would come along to support herself while she was off the road. She rode her bicycle to work each day, afraid of hitting someone while behind the wheel of her personal vehicle.

But Hirt’s dizzy spells did not go away after she left trucking, and after pleading with her local VA hospital, she was finally able to convince them to do surgery on her ears. During surgery, doctors discovered a perilymph fistula – a tear or hole in the membrane separating the inner and middle ear – in her right ear.

According to Dr. Murray Grossan, a board-certified Otolarynologist and expert in the ear, nose and throat field, a perilymph fistula is most frequently caused by heavy pressure on the ears, such as from scuba diving and blowing your ears too hard.

However, he said carbon monoxide and excess diesel fumes in the cab of a truck, like in Hirt’s situation, could have worn down her immune system’s defenses resulting in ear infections and other hearing-related issues.

The doctors grafted over the holes, and shortly thereafter, Hirt was amazed by the results.

“They did the surgery in September, and within two weeks, I was nutty with energy, ready to roll,” she said. “On April 15, I hired on with Arrow.”

Hirt eventually left Arrow and is now back to working for Crete. Her symptoms have all but disappeared. Although she said she’s confident this problem won’t affect her again, she worries about other drivers who might not recognize the symptoms of chronic carbon monoxide poisoning.

“These guys have been told by their maintenance people, ‘That stuff won’t hurt you.’ ” she said. “They rattle off a bunch of parts-per-million numbers and say it doesn’t hurt you, and these guys are believing them because they’re supposed to be an authority. They’re going down the road, and they’re having heart attacks and can’t breathe. They’re dying.”

Chronic carbon monoxide poisoning syndrome

Physical symptoms
Muscle and joint pain
Chronic fatigue
Dizziness and vertigo
Paresthesias (a burning, prickling, 
itching, or tingling skin sensation)

Cognitive symptoms
Attention/concentration problems
Verbal/physical deficits
Word-finding/word-order problems
Short-term memory problems
Loss of intellectual capacity
Slowed cognitive processing

Neurological symptoms
Aphasia (loss of speech)
Gait (walking problems)

Emotional symptoms
Mood changes
Apathy, lack of motivation
Social relationship problems
Sleep disturbances
Personality changes

Sensory symptoms
Blurred or double vision
Tinnitus (buzzing in the ear)
Loss of hearing
Hypersensitivity to chemicals
Slowed coordination
Decreased motor strength
Speaking/eating/swallowing disorders

* Source: David G. Penney, professor of physiology, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, MI, and director of surgical research, Providence Hospital, Southfield, MI.