Nicole Folz and the Transport N Service truck that brought her back to Canada and the treatment...

Nicole Folz and the Transport N Service truck that brought her back to Canada and the treatment she needed.

Photos: Today's Trucking

On April 25, professional driver Nicole Folz took her first steps in 15 days outside a makeshift COVID-19 camp at an undisclosed airport hotel in Toronto.

It capped off a two-week ordeal that started April 7 while delivering a load in South Carolina.

“It wasn’t until the following morning that I started getting worried,” she told Today’s Trucking on April 23, just minutes after taking what would be her second negative COVID-19 test, following a positive result from a test taken April 10. “I had a sore throat and cough, and that’s when my fatigue from (the previous) night started to be a factor for me.”

Folz had taken all the precautions truckers and the public were advised to follow. She carried hand sanitizer in the truck and washed her hands frequently. The 26-year-old began living in the truck when the pandemic took hold, so she wouldn’t risk picking up the virus on the road and bringing it home to her parents, her sister, or young niece.

“I hadn’t been going home. I was staying in my truck at the yard to keep my family safe,” Folz said.

Realizing she may have contracted the virus, Folz took additional steps to ensure the safety of others as she finished her trip. She left her paperwork in the back of the trailer for the shipper and wore a face shield. When someone reached for the gladhand on her trailer she warned them away and attached it herself.

Hearing she was unwell, her carrier, Ontario-based Transport N Service, found her a truckload for the return trip rather than her previously scheduled LTL load.

Load delivered, return load picked up, Folz’s struggles were just beginning. She blew a trailer tire in Washington, Pennylvania, and had to engage the roadside service provider from inside the cab, having him submit the invoice by email to avoid direct contact.

Folz wondered how best to get through the border back to Canada without putting customs officers at risk.

She called Shelley Uvanile-Hesch, head of the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada, who connected her with Transport Canada. They provided a number for a Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) superintendent who was able to process her load in advance by email. When she approached the border, CBSA was waiting for her.

Folz was directed to a specific booth, where she held her passport against the window before being waved through. Next, Folz had to find a place to go for testing and treatment. She made more than 70 phone calls to various public health agencies looking for an answer and repeatedly got the runaround. Uvanile-Hesch called Ontario Premier Doug Ford on his cell phone on Good Friday, and the wheels were immediately put into motion to get Folz help. She was given the address of the Toronto-area care center and told to report there immediately after dropping her truck at the yard.

The facility, which can’t be identified, is run by Public Health Canada and the Canadian Red Cross.

“Both parties have different things they take care of,” Folz said. “It’s been phenomenal. When I was still really sick, the nurses would come to my room two to three times a day, check my temperature and my lungs, then the Red Cross would bring me meals three times a day. If I needed anything else, like prescriptions, they picked them up from the pharmacy. There’s a sanitation crew as well that comes into my room every day in full hazmat suits and cleans the room.”

Even the food was good, she said, catered by Hockley Valley Resort. “It’s not hospital food,” she chuckled.

What Having COVID-19 Was Like

The virus wreaked havoc on Folz’s body. She described joint pain akin to being “hit by a train.” Her fever of more than 100 degrees lasted more than a week.

“I couldn’t get it to break at all,” Folz said.

The first test, administered April 10, took four days to produce a result, which confirmed she was positive for COVID-19.

By April 20, rapid testing was available. Folz’s first discharge test, taken April 20, returned a negative result the next day, but since the rapid tests are more prone to false negatives, she had to return a second negative test before being discharged. That was taken April 23 and just hours later produced the second negative needed to be released.

While Folz was feeling much better and was eager to be released, she still suffered from soreness and fatigue and didn’t plan to return to work for another week or two.

“I am eager to get back at it,” she said. “I haven’t felt this ill for this long since I started driving. I prefer to be on the road. I love the lifestyle and I’ve very passionate about it. But I don’t think I’d last more than three hours of driving at a time right now. My body is so sore, I’m still not sleeping well because I can’t get comfortable. I go from pacing the room, to sitting on a chair, to sitting on the bed. I’m having a hard time staying in one place for too long. I plan to go home, and get my body mobile where I have more room with fresh air to walk around in.”

The Carrier Viewpoint

The experience was a new one for Transport N Service. Shawn Backle, operations manager, said the company has taken several steps to ensure its drivers stay healthy on the road.

“The one thing we have done is engaged our driver services managers to do wellness checks, and reach out to all our drivers on a regular basis,” he said. “It could be as simple as, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ It gives an opportunity for drivers to share their experiences and it gives us an opportunity to come up with ideas about how we can fix some of the challenges they’re facing.”

The company has sourced hand sanitizer for drivers, and was still working to get them face masks, which were scheduled for delivery later in the week. Drivers are assigned to dedicated tractors. Folz’s was placed out of service and “red-taped” for a week and will be thoroughly sanitized before she returns to work.

“Following the events Nicole has endured, it’s been an opportunity for a great many people to learn, including various government agencies and our industry as a whole,” said Backle. “We are a very unique business, and when our employees come to work, they are often hundreds or thousands of miles away from the home terminal.”

Looking back, Folz said she may not have adequately expressed the extent of her sickness, as she is “a very self-sufficient person” who tries not to ask for help.

“I have a hard time directly asking for help, because I take pride in my ability to get things done,” she said. “I knew my limit. If it had gotten any worse than how I felt, I wouldn’t have hesitated to park the truck at a truck stop and call an ambulance. I had public health nurses checking in on me on my way back. It was the best feeling driving through the gates at the yard.”

“I applaud Nicole for her perseverance,” said Backle.

Have a Plan

Folz’s advice to other professional drivers is to have a plan for if they get sick on the road. “I wasn’t proactive enough to figure out, if I do get sick, where am I going to go?” Folz said. “My advice is to have a plan yourself, and see what your company’s procedure is.”

Folz wrote about her experience in a widely circulated Facebook post April 10, which resulted in her receiving a call from a Ministry of Health official, who apologized and promised actions were taken to ensure other drivers don’t face the same roadblocks.

She also received plenty of encouragement and well wishes from other drivers and friends.

“It makes it feel more like a family,” she said of the kind words she received from coworkers. “I have met a decent number of drivers from the company and every one of them I have on Facebook have been giving me words of support, understanding my gypsy soul can’t wait to get back out on the road.”

James Menzies is the editor of Today's Trucking, where this article originally appeared, and was used with permission from Newcom Media as part of a cooperative editorial agreement.