Meet the “MeRV"

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Trucking really needs to take a hard look at itself – it’s high time to examine this issue of health and wellness in trucking because of the obvious benefits they can have for both carriers and drivers alike." --Rebecca Brewster president & CEO of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI)

To look at Jon Osborn, you’d never think he nearly died from lack of sleep.

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A powerfully-built Navy veteran (specializing in "aviation medicine"), retired chief paramedic for the city of San Francisco and a former long-haul trucker to boot, Osborn is as skilled as anyone can get in dealing with the unexpected – especially highly chaotic and traumatic kinds of unexpected events.

Yet for years he didn’t feel right – though he told me he just kept shrugging that feeling off, plowing through the unending stream of days powered by coffee, cigarettes, and big meals. He tagged smoking as the culprit, tried to quit, and watched his weight balloon past 335 pounds. Osborn just couldn’t figure out what was wrong – but his family had some ideas.

He snored loudly and heavily every night – so bad that, once while on a family vacation to Disney World, he got banished to the hotel hallway to sleep. That convinced him to go see a doctor (a tough moment for any veteran corpsman to face) and eventually discovered he suffered from sleep apnea.

Officially termed “obstructive sleep apnea” or OSA, it’s a condition in which individuals obstruct their own airways while sleeping, typically resulting in “hypoxia” or low blood oxygen levels at night. That in turn leads to interruptions in breathing lasting several seconds at a time, loud snoring, and non-restful sleep.

Individuals with OSA are frequently entirely unaware of the condition, according to medical research.

In addition to the substantial risks of impairment or incapacitation as a direct result of the fatigue associated with OSA, the untreated disorder increases the likelihood of other operationally relevant medical conditions, including stroke, heart failure, coronary artery disease, and diabetes.

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Osborn himself bears testament to all of this; he’s also living proof that, with treatment, OSA doesn’t have to lead to such trauma. He uses a continuous positive airway pressure or "CPAP" machine to negate the effects of OSA; a device that forces a continuous stream of air into the breathing passages to prevent the airway from closing, thus allowing an OSA sufferer to get the sleep they need.

As a result of dealing with his OSA, Osborn said he quit smoking and lost over 100 pounds. Furthermore, he feels so much better and more energetic, all because his body now gets proper rest.

[Osborn will be on The Dave Nemo Show tomorrow – Tuesday, May 25 at 8:00 am eastern time – on Sirius-XM Satellite Radio XM 171/Sirius 147 to talk about OSA, with special guests Dr. Maggi Gunnells and Dr. Benisse Lester, who run the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) medical programs. All three will address rumors about medical requirements concerning truck driver Department of Transportation (DOT) medical exams, medical requirements for drivers, and how the system works for medical rule making and guidance.]

But the battle against OSA isn’t over for Osborn. He’s part of a new “mobile campaign” to help truck drivers discern if they suffer from sleep apnea or not. As “captain” of the “MeRV” – short for Medical Resource Vehicle – Osborn will be logging 1,500 to 2,500 miles per week, visiting truck stops and trucking terminals across the country, testing up to six drivers per day for OSA.

[These OSA “sleep tests” will be conducted using a special “sleep shirt” developed by Safety First Sleep Solutions (SFSS). In this clip, Greg McDerman, SFSS’ vp, explains how both the firm’s sleep shirt works as well as the function of a CPAP, if one needs to be prescribed to a trucker.]

Safety First Sleep Solutions (SFSS) operates the MeRV in partnership with the St. Christopher's Truckers Development and Relief fund to provide drivers with testing for a variety of sleep disorders (and Osborn is also serving as a field sales representative for SFSS as well).

The MeRV is a 37-feet long camper, equipped with a liftgate, built on a three year old C5500 25,000 lb GVW GM chassis equipped with a Duramax diesel and Allison six speed automatic transmission. “Our ‘break-in’ mileage so far is 8.93 miles per gallon, but we’re hoping to eventually get 14 mpg with this truck,” he said.

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Osborn’s routine will be to invite truckers into the van for coffee and to fill out a medical history survey (roughly 40 questions long). Standard tests are conducted (temperature and blood pressure readings, for instance) with the truckers then fitted with SFSS’s special “sleep shirts.” The drivers then return to the sleeper berths of their tractors for the night.

“We need about five hours of sleep data to make a determination if they suffer from OSA,” Osborn told me. That data is then sent to the offices of Dr. John McElligott, with roughly four to six days needed to determine if the patient in question does suffer from OSA and needs treatment.

[Not all truckers do well with CPAP machines, so there are other alternatives being touted today. ImThera Medical, for example, has developed a new OSA treatment therapy using neuro-stimulation via its aura6000 device. Here’s a clip showing how this particular device works.]

This isn’t a small problem, either. Currently, more than 800,000 patients in the U.S. are diagnosed every year with OSA, with more than 20 million un-treated patients estimated to suffer from this condition. While many in trucking think all this talk about OSA is nothing more than a money-grab by the medical device industry – and there is some truth to that – in my discussions with truckers suffering from sleep apnea, it’s about time this health issue got some attention.

“You don’t know you have it,” Gary Hull, a former trucker and also a member of Truckers For a Cause, told me at the recent Sleep Apnea & Trucking Conference I attended outside of Baltimore, MD.

Diagnosed in 2004 with OSA, Hull said the difference for him has been “night and day” in terms of physical well-being. “I used to only be able to drive two hours before needing to take a break, walk around, get a cup of coffee,” he explained. “OSA is like when you can’t see well; you don’t notice it until you put on glasses and go ‘Wow! Look at what I can see now!’”

Having the “MeRV” visiting truck stops and trucking terminals will help, too – not only in terms of screening for OSA, but paying long overdue attention to driver health and wellness, too.

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The physical fitness and overall health of the aging truck driver population in the U.S. is a growing concern among industry experts because fitness relates so strongly to job performance, Rebecca Brewster president & CEO of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) told me a while back.

“Certainly, the more physically fit and healthy drivers are, the more alert and less fatigued they are,” she explained. “Being physically fit also makes them less susceptible to injury as an increased fitness level gives them more body strength and flexibility – critical aspects when loading and unloading trailers, for example.”

Yet the overall prognosis for truck drivers isn’t good. Brewster said that, according to recent research, 55% of truck drivers overweight and more than 50% smoke, compared to a national overall average of 20.9% and 25%, respectively.

“Clearly, [drivers] have the final responsibility to eat right and exercise,” Brewster said. “But the stress out on the road, the lack of time to exercise, all contribute to the issue. My personal belief is that we as an industry must do what it takes to support ways to make drivers more fit and healthy – because the bottom line impact for carriers cannot be ignored.”

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