September 2014

«It was as if someone had plunged a knife into my back »

Lorry driver Yalcin Esen spent 24 years delivering extremely heavy wooden panels until unbearable back pain confined him to his bed. He was out of action for a long time, but eventually managed to battle his way back to work.

Yacin Esen

Yalcin Esen used to drive a lorry. Today, he sits behind the wheel of a coach.

Yalcin Esen (49) remembers the moment the pain shot down his spine as if it were yesterday. For several days he could only move on all fours. When he looks back, he should have seen his herniated disc coming: in the year before, he had repeatedly fallen victim to lumbago. «I just popped a painkiller during the day – and had a massage at home in the evening.» All of his former colleagues at the freight company had problems with their back in one form of another; it was just part of the job. «Just grin and bear it, that was the MO», says the Thurgau native in a thick Eastern Switzerland accent, as he steers the double-decker coach into the parking lot at Zurich central station. There, he picks up 72 trainees for a day trip to Ticino. Yalcin Esen came to Switzerland from Turkey with his parents when he was 14. He had never learned a vocation, so he got a job as a labourer in a shoe factory. Later on he fulfilled a dream by training as a lorry driver. He remained loyal to his first employer and didn't miss a day's work in 24 years of service – until his back started giving him trouble. Suddenly, painkillers and massages were no longer doing the trick. From now on, he shouldn't lift loads heavier than 25kg, his back specialist told him. This was a shock for Yalcin Esen – a strong, active man who had never done anything other than deliver wood.

When muscles are used in place of cranes

In Yalcin Esen's company, which supplies carpenter's workshops, there was one forklift and one crane used by workers to load the panels onto the lorry. If he was lucky, the carpenter's workshop would have similar equipment. «But this was usually wishful thinking, especially in the smaller firms», says Yalcin Esen. And so he and his colleagues were forced to unload the wood from the lorries by pure muscle power alone – up to ten tonnes per day. «Your body can only take so much until something «snaps», like it did with me.» He could never fathom why more companies don't use lorries that can take forklifts with them when they go on deliveries: «The additional cost would soon pay off, since employees would be able to work much more efficiently and would get injured less often.»

«The first few days after I slipped my desk, I hit a real low», recalls Yalcin Esen. He had already approached relatives to see if they could help out if finances became tight. Of course Yalcin Esen knew that he would receive salary compensation for as long as he was on sick leave. But what would happen after this? Since Yalcin Esen's employer had daily sickness benefits insurance from Helsana, Helsana was alerted to his situation. When insured persons are absent from work for an extended period or are expected to be based on their current diagnosis, Helsana offers support to its clients. «That was my saving grace», says Yalcin Esen. In case manager Bettina Majoleth he found someone he could turn to and assist him with the formalities required by the various authorities. He especially appreciated the fact that she even came to see him once in person during this difficult time.

Driver, tour guide, mechanic

Before he had even met with Bettina Majoleth, Yalcin Esen knew that the coach business presented a real opportunity. «I'm proud that I'm now back in full-time employment.» His extensive experience and the loyalty he displayed towards his former employer undoubtedly played a role here. Without case manager Bettina Majoleth, however, he likely would have not got back on his feet so quickly. «I learned from her that disability insurance would cover the cost of my retraining as a coach driver», says the father-of-two.

After eight long months of therapy I was at last fit enough to take the first module of my coach driver certification. That was now one year ago. He passed all of his examinations with flying colours, and a short time later he got his first paying position as a substitute driver with a travel company. «But if you think that I've traded in hard work for an easy life, you're quite wrong», says Yalcin Esen. «My job as a coach driver is varied and challenging.» He gets up at 3.30 in the morning to prepare his luxury coach for the day. If he's crossing the border, he has to get all the required travel documents together and familiarise himself with the route and destinations. «I'm now a quasi tour guide and have to answer questions – also about tourist sights and landmarks.» Last but not least, he has to be ready to spring into action if there's a breakdown. Of course he also has to help passengers load and unload their luggage – «but only if their suitcase weighs less than 25kg», he jokes.

Text: Christian Schiller