Uncle Sam says: Go back to work

Dan Rodricks YBB

November 27, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

It has been three years since the accident and, though some of the wires that hold Johnny Alford's neck together have broken and his psychiatrist says he's still too traumatized -- haunted by nightmares, headaches, depression and shame -- to return to work, the Social Security Administration thinks Alford belongs behind the wheel of a big rig again.

Our kinder-and-gentler government sent Alford a letter rejecting his claim for disability benefits. Here's a highlight:

"Although you have a broken neck and left shoulder, medical records show you are able to stand and walk without assistance. Although you have post traumatic stress disorder, medical reports show that you are still able to think, communicate and act in your own best interest. It has been concluded that you have the ability to do your past work as a tractor-trailer truck driver, as this job is customarily performed in the national economy."

From a slouch on a sofa in his apartment in Towson, Johnny Alford, 38, a thin man with bloodshot eyes, reaches for two small vials of medicine prescribed by Dr. Alan H. Peck, his psychiatrist.

"This one is Xanax," Alford says. "And this one is Halcion. One helps me stay calm, the other helps me sleep. How can I drive a truck on these drugs?"

Alford takes the drugs because the injuries he received in the truck accident three years ago left serious mental scars.

"He still has terrible pain in his neck," Peck says. "He is terribly depressed. He still has thoughts of the accident. This was once a highly spirited guy who loved life, big cars and women. He worked very hard and made good money. He was generous, bought gifts for lots of people, nephews, nieces. . . . He has nightmares, sweats profusely. He withdrew from people. He's embarrassed about what's happened to him. He cries in malls. He can't drive. He stays away from people. The Maryland Rehabilitation Center concluded that he had post traumatic stress disorder."

As did Peck, who is still treating Alford and fears his patient has reached a breaking point. "Everything that happened since the accident has only added stress to his life," Peck says. "The insurance company, in particular."

The wires placed in Alford's neck snapped about six months after the initial surgery, but an insurance company refuses to authorize a second operation to fix them. A doctor at Johns Hopkins recommends the surgery.

But nobody gets the kind of treatment he needs without a guarantee he can pay.

Right now, Alford has no income. Not only won't Social Security grant him disability benefits, but Alford's worker's compensation checks have been cut off. The state thinks he can return to work, too.

The worker's compensation checks stopped coming six weeks ago. The rent on his apartment is overdue. The other day, he was on the phone with a claims processor from Baltimore County, hoping to get help from the Energy Assistance Program to keep his gas and electric from being turned off.

Johnny Alford stutters when he speaks about all this. He sounds nervous and desperate, like a man pleading to be pulled back from the edge.

"I never asked for nothing in my life," he says. "I always worked. Worked in the Bethlehem Steel shipyard, worked in a gas station."

And for years he had a busy, happy life as a truck driver. "I made good money. I took care of a lot of people in my life."

In early December 1988, on a highway in South Carolina, Alford maneuvered his truck to avoid a collision with a car. The tires hit soft shoulder. The truck jackknifed. Alford ended up in a hospital for two months, a brace on his neck, screws in his skull, tubes up his nose. His left side was partially paralyzed.

As time went by, his friends didn't come around anymore. His girlfriend disappeared. "I guess they all thought I was gonna die," he says. "Most of my relatives were out of state. I was on my own."

His savings ran out. He moved to a less expensive apartment. For a few months last year, after someone suddenly decided Alford didn't deserve worker's compensation, he applied for welfare and food stamps. He says he was ashamed, but he took the benefits -- $290 a month combined -- until the worker's compensation was restored.

Now that's been cut again.

I told him to apply for General Public Assistance from the state, but then remembered: That's been cut, too.

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