An old Winnebago hung a left into a Northampton County strip mall and swung around slowly in the gravel beside a pizza shop before parking alongside eight black mailboxes.
Inside, Patrick V. Suglia, 55, opened a metal folding chair and placed it in the narrow aisle beside the fold-out bed. He put on blue latex gloves. He prepped the tiny toilet.
Minutes later, a man twice Suglia’s size knocked on the RV’s side door and pulled himself inside. Lance Hower drives dump trucks and was fighting a cold he caught from his wife. When he coughed, the Winnebago rocked on its springs.
Hower paid in cash, upfront, and the roadside exam began.
“Baseball,” Suglia whispered to Hower.
“Baseball,” he grumbled back.
Suglia whispered again.
Hower repeated the word. His hearing was fine.
“You’re going to get your $80 worth today,” Suglia said with a laugh. “I need you to take your socks and shoes off. Everything else can stay on.”
Suglia is a rover, pushing that 1981 Winnebago through 201 zip codes in Southeastern Pennsylvania, performing Department of Transportation biennial physicals for truckers. He’s one of 56,973 examiners in the country tested and certified by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Some examiners have mobile operations, others have offices in truck stops, but only one has a cozy, 36-year-old Winnebago with the original maroon and beige cushions. Customers come mostly by word-of-mouth and CB radio. His sole mobile competitor in the area died this year, so that helped business. Suglia can perform a half-dozen exams a day, and he’s meticulous with the appointment book, meeting truckers in parking lots of Walmarts and Waffle Houses closest to where they are in Pennsylvania’s exurbs.
Chiropractic is Suglia’s passion. He keeps an adjustment table tucked away in the Winnebago in case truckers want to pay an extra $40 for an adjustment. He’s also a minister, an author, and a practitioner of reiki, the Japanese technique for stress reduction that involves “life force energy.” Truckers often skip the reiki.
When pressed for the Winnebago’s nickname, Suglia, a budding Dr. Who fan, settled on “TARDIS,” in honor of the time-traveling phone booth in the British sci-fi series. He couldn’t recall any specific CB radio handle he’s earned besides a practical “Hey, DOT van.”
Like Dr. Who, sort of, Suglia traveled everywhere — Minnesota, Arizona, Kentucky, Indiana — but the road, not the destination, always felt more like home. He grew up in Reading, Berks County, with two brothers and volunteered on an ambulance crew. High school at Berks Catholic wasn’t easy, he said, because he was socially awkward. Learning difficulties went undiagnosed, making college a challenge.
Suglia trained and worked as a respiratory therapist, but decided he had more potential. He found it at Life University, a chiropractic and holistic health school in Georgia. After graduating in 2000, he adjusted patients at an office in a Poconos truck stop, but the awkwardness, he said, made it difficult for him to promote himself.
In the Poconos, Suglia met Thomas “Dr. Tom” O’Beirne, a Vietnam veteran and former Jersey Shore cop who worked as a chiropractor in Philadelphia for 35 years. O’Beirne was a mentor, urging him to get some wheels and get on the DOT exam circuit in 2001.
O’Beirne used a minivan, so Suglia used one, too.
“Even when I had an office, I preferred to be on the road,” he said. “I loved making house calls.”
O’Beirne chain-smoked. He died in March. “I got a lot of his clients,” Suglia said.
He met his first wife in an online chat room about yoga and health while living in the Poconos. After flying to Romania to marry her, they settled in Minnesota, where the cold, he said, wasn’t as bad as the people. Later, marriage counseling led him to a diagnosis of autism, and that cleared up a lot of things for him.
“Obviously, I’m high-functioning,” said Suglia, who has written several books on living with autism. “It’s a challenge.”
Marriage counseling didn’t save the relationship. When an astrology map pointed him toward the Southwest, Suglia, a Virgo who follows his instincts, went there.
“I kind of hit a low spot in my life after my divorce and ran out to Arizona,” he said, “and hid out in the desert for a while.”
The chiropractic business didn’t blossom in Arizona, and Suglia, his pockets light, came back to Pennsylvania in 2013, where he met his second wife, Becky, a social worker.
The couple lives in Shoemakersville and co-founded Earth Spirit Interfaith Ministry, which Suglia describes as “like an interfaith kind of thing.”
“We kind of worship in a non-religious kind of way,” he said.
Suglia, ordained in 2001 by the Progressive Universal Life Church, charges $150 for a “basic wedding.” Private spiritual counseling is available for $60 an hour, in person or via Skype.
The Suglias are also partners in a holistic healing center in Temple, Berks County.
Becky, he said, is understanding of his autism. If he goes to a party, he’s the quiet one, anathema to chitchat, unless he latches on to a certain subject.
“That’s usually chiropractic work or spirituality,” he said.
The Winnebago life, Suglia said, is the bulk of his work. He bought the rig in 2016 from a man in Dallas, Pa., whose father lived in it for two decades in a mobile home park. A fading sticker on its rear end suggests it was born in Chicopee, Mass. He paid $4,000 for it and thinks he got a good deal. He has put $14,000 into it.
Hower’s arms were too thick for the standard blood pressure cuff, but Suglia had a bigger one. He pressed against Hower’s belly to feel for hernias, conducted an eye exam, tested a small droplet of blood for sugar levels. After about 45 minutes, Hower left with a new certification, and a recommendation to dose up on Vitamin D.
Checking his appointments, Suglia let the RV idle for several minutes, but it still jolted into gear when he put in reverse. The Winnebago chugged along in the growing dark, past fields of dried corn and over the Lehigh River, into a tow yard in Coplay, where Joseph Berrocal, 40, jumped in.
Berrocal would undergo the same tests, fill out the same paperwork, and hear the same whispers. But Suglia granted the man a small reprieve from the routine he has worked hard to perfect in order to be himself on the road.
“I’ve had to go to the bathroom since about 2 o’clock,” Berrocal said.
“OK,” Suglia said, “we’ll go ahead and do your pee test first.”