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The Truck Stops Here

Keep on truckin': David Kleberger ministers to the mobile.
Larry Winter

Delores describes herself as "stinkingly healthy," but health is relative at this Commerce City truck-stop clinic, where she is undergoing a mandatory Department of Transportation physical. This is not the territory of low-risk cholesterol, weight or heart rate.

"Oh, our health problems are all the same," Delores says. "High blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and drinking, used to be." Although none of that applies to her, she has other problems that mean she'll have to keep reciting her complicated medical history forever.

"I was diagnosed with Graves' disease in 1997," she says. "My heart rate was 187. I'd gone from 147 pounds to 87. Couldn't sleep. I had two blackout spells, but it hit me gradually. I was running with a bad marriage at the time. My husband noticed the change in me, but he didn't care. Finally a state trooper pulled me over and sent me home to the doctor.

"Well, of course, that was when I got pneumonia," she continues. "And my thyroid decided to pitch in and help -- by killing me! They thought I was going to die, but I'm too mean."

Nurse practitioner David Kleberger, who owns the clinic at Sapp Brothers truck stop in Commerce City and is conducting Delores's exam, finds her much improved today despite the elevated heart rate, which, in a way, is to be expected. Delores, a truck driver, has been drinking coffee all night.

"Any pain or discomfort here?" Kleberger asks. "Here? Here?"

"Well, yeah, there. I've fallen off the truck a few times," Delores explains.

"How about here?"

"No -- and say! My goiter's almost gone!"

"That's good," Kleberger agrees. At the end of the exam, Delores's DOT card is renewed, making her job as a big-rig driving instructor secure for another two years.

Kleberger keeps long hours, charges reasonable rates and doesn't take insurance. If a driver stricken with the flu happens by Sapp Brothers, Kleberger likes to think that he'll pop in for fast medical treatment.

"Lately, several of the truck stops have clinics," Delores says. "At the Triple T on I-10 outside Tucson, they have a doctor, a chiropractor, a massage therapist, even a dentist. We find it very handy. The hardest place to get medical treatment is in your big cities, mostly because you have to find a place to park your truck. L.A. is a nightmare."

Kleberger's clinic has plenty of parking for semi-trucks, almost instant service and a ready-made clientele. One trucking company alone sends him 600 mandatory physicals each year. DOT regs also require that half of all truckers undergo random drug tests annually. When that happens, what could be easier than ordering your driver to stop at Sapp Brothers?

"I've never had any particular interest in truckers or trucker culture," Kleberger says, "and I never thought I'd end up owning this kind of business in a million years. I didn't even know there was this kind of business. But I found a group of people who need medical care, and I can help them, and I like that."

Once the youngest EMT in Missouri, Kleberger started out as a registered nurse assisting at surgeries. He put himself through nurse-practitioner school when he decided he needed more autonomy. "I thought I might stick with surgery, but it was God's will or whatever," he recalls. "I ended up working at this clinic when another company owned it. They were overextended and ended up giving all the employees their two-week notice, and the manager here at the truck stop practically begged me to keep the business open, so I did."

Kleberger reopened the clinic's doors in February 2001. Since then, he's built a clientele that's about 65 percent truckers, with the difference made up by locals without health insurance, transients from nearby hotels, and office workers who need something beyond the occupational medical clinics in the area. He's become a familiar, if incongruous, figure at Sapp Brothers as he roams around in his crisp Ralph Lauren slacks and shirt.

This is a hot day redolent with diesel fumes, and truck traffic is brisk. People have this erroneous idea that truckers are always on the move, Kleberger says, when the truth is they might end up hanging around a place like Sapp Brothers for two or three days, waiting for an order and killing time playing video games, or watching TV, or doing laundry, or just waiting. It's a good climate in which to set up a free blood-pressure screening down at the convenience store. With all that time on his hands, a guy might decide to come up to the clinic for a complete workup.

"You'd be surprised," Kleberger says, "I get morbidly obese guys whose blood pressure is fine. More often, I diagnose Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure. A lot of times, they have no idea, and I try to educate them, but I try to start slow. I never say jog. I say walk -- for twenty minutes, twice a week. I try to get them off just two foods: regular soda and potatoes. You eat potatoes all the time, they turn directly to sugar in your system -- and anyway, in places like this, they're soaked in fat."

 

Kleberger treasures the memory of a client who paid attention, lost 25 pounds and came in regularly for more advice. "Here's a guy in his sixties who saved his own life," he recalls. "He started knowing what to do. You love to see that. But for the rest," he sighs, "I keep pushing fruit and vegetables."

In fact, the Sapp Brothers store features a small yet conspicuous shelf of apples, oranges and bananas. "I got the manager to do that," Kleberger says. "And I talked to the restaurant manager about the salad bar -- could it have something green and fresh? I may be getting somewhere. I'd actually love to open an exercise room some day. But boy, I can't hit my patients with too much information. I have to keep it simple: Don't go to McDonald's every day. When you do, don't order three Big Macs. Why does it always have to be three?"

With this unanswerable question hanging in the air, Kleberger rushes upstairs to his next appointment.


The Sapp Brothers complex, which opened in 1987, has since been outdone by slicker, more modern truck stops, but it stays busy. Its large central rooms, the store, the remains of a defunct Burger King and a restaurant advertised as a Mega-Buffet are surrounded by a warren of rooms open only to truckers, including a selection of private showers. Kleberger occupies offices on the second floor, near the sign advising that no prescription meds or cash are kept on the premises, across the hall from a chiropractor, just down from the CB shop (where the Original Predator 10K antenna is currently on sale) and the Hairport, owned for the past eight years by Barbara, who has made it into a tiny oasis full of turquoise paint, undersea decorating accents, plastic flowers and posters from tropical isles.

"Do you understand that this is a closed society?" asks her latest customer, as he rises from his chair, his Elvis-ian pompadour newly groomed. "You don't even want to talk about these health problems. You will piss people off, and I ain't even mentioned the drugs yet, and I ain't going to. But it's all true. There's two kinds of truckers -- the overweight ones and the skinny ones who use some kind of stimulant, legal or otherwise. The overweight ones snack on Ho Hos all day. Me, I drink a twelve-pack of Mountain Dew every day just to keep going -- that and cigarettes. I gained 65 pounds since I got out of the service."

"I feel for you," Barbara says, sweeping the loose hair from his shoulders. "I think that little cubicle you sit in becomes your world, and if you're an addictive personality, it gets awful hard."

"You drive trucks, you get fat," says Barbara's next haircut client, a blond woman from Arkansas. "I had gastric bypass surgery when I hit 300 pounds."

"Oh -- aren't you brave!" Barbara gasps.

"Bladder infections, kidney infections, ulcers -- all the troubles you get from being overweight," the woman recites. "The food is all fried, and there's way too much of it. I need grilled chicken, and it's a special order. Some of your waitresses will turn their noses up, but not all, luckily."

"I think your hair is just wonderful," Barbara says.

"Well, I'm trying to grow out the back and keep the top short. I always liked that style."

If so, she should visit the clinic on her way out. More than one mullet decorates the waiting room, and the truckers here have been waiting for some time, apparently because they have nothing better to do and might as well sit here chatting as anywhere else.

"Grand Rapids, De-troit, they all is shut down," one man is saying, while the radio croons "...and they call the thing rodeo..."

"It sounds like a good organizing system," someone else points out, "but where do you end up hanging your clothes? Right there in the cab?"

The crowd is friendly; laughter erupts -- some, not all, of it emphysemic. In one of the examining rooms, Kleberger is informing a fiftyish man of his borderline high blood pressure.

 

"That so?" the man says, with mild interest.

"What all this is about is not exercising," says David Ramsey, the latest guy to arrive in the waiting room. Ramsey is here for a random urine drug screen -- a small part of the summer truck-driving adventure he's showing his son, Eric. Both Ramseys are noticeably buff.

"I have an arrangement with Bally's Total Fitness," David explains. "I have places to work out all over the country, and they make it easy to park."

"I take my walks around the truck stop sometimes," offers an older man. "Anyone who won't do that is just plain lazy."

"How can you say that?" argues the guy next to him. "I pull out that chair to set down at that buffet, don't I?"

David Kleberger appears from the examining room.

"Who's next?" he asks.


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