One of the more common, non-emergent complaints I hear in the ER is about sleeping, or the lack thereof. Although the patient is usually being seen for a more serious, emergent issue, if their sleep is not solid, they tend to skillfully bring it up regardless of what else is going on.
"Maam," I said, "it appears by your EKG that you are having a heart attack."
Despite chest pain so intense that my patient was clutching her chest, she still stammered, "But what can we do about my sleep?"
Or, imagine my elderly male patient in the midst of a stroke, with the left half of his face drooping, his speech slurred, and drool sliding down his chin. "I shant schweep adt nichte."
"Pardon me, sir, but what did you just say?" I asked.
Thankfully, the nurse starting his IV understood him. "He said, 'I can't sleep at night.'"
See what I mean? I've even had a patient share her insomnia issues during a pelvic exam. Maybe if she had slept more and fooled around less, I wouldn't have had to do this exam for her itchy, malodorous discharge in the first place.
Barring the situational, temporary reasons (for example, a death in the family), sleep disorders are typically viewed as chronic, long-term illnesses and, as such, should be treated by one's family doctor. Sleep studies may be necessary, and there are several options of treatment to prescribe, all requiring close follow-up. All reasons for me not to treat a patient for this disorder. I will, in a pinch, prescribe a few days worth of medication for a patient if their daily life is being severely affected, but that's about it.
Several years ago, after some prompting by my wife, I underwent a sleep study. It seems that I was having bouts of snoring and gasping for air in my sleep, per my wife. I'm not sure how she knew this, seeing that her head hits the pillow and a six-to-eight-hour coma immediately follows. But yes, she insisted, this was happening. So I took her word for it and pursued the testing.
I arrived at the sleep lab suite around 7:30 p.m, nervous and not sure what to expect. After checking in, I was shown to a huge bedroom, professionally decorated, with a queen-size, pillow-top bed beckoning for my company. "Come, Jim" it whispered to me, "come and let me wrap my big, down-filled arms around you." I think I heard the 40-inch TV calling, too, but I could have been imagining that.
After the tech showed me to my private bathroom, I changed into some appropriate sleepwear. You might be asking yourself--what's appropriate? I'm going to let your imagination answer that question. Just be aware, though, that they videotape you through the night as you sleep. And then post that video on YouTube. Just joking. Suffice it to say, I would suggest that one wear more than just the usual home sleepwear. And newer, too. Please, on behalf of all the sleep-lab techs in the world, don't show up in a stained, big-daddy Hanes t-shirt. Or tighty-whiteys. Or a moth-eaten thong. Or nothing at all. Especially nothing at all!
After changing, I climbed into bed. Soon, the tech came into the room. I was nervous, obviously, and likened this anxiety to how a 60 year-old fat, balding guy must feel while lying in his hotel bed, waiting for his prostitute to arrive.
The tech, a nonchalant, easy-going guy, explained the whole process to me. "First, we 'll attach these electrodes to your head, then your chest and finally your arms. After that, we'll leave you alone. You can do whatever you want--watch TV, read a book, whatever--until around 10 p.m. If you aren't sleeping by then, we'll ask you to turn off everything. Don't forget," he continued, "besides monitoring you, we'll be watching you on video." He pointed to the cameras in the upper corners of the room while he spoke. "Any questions?"
No questions, but just a silent prayer. "Dear God, I beg of you, keep me from scratching myself or making a fool of myself tonight. Amen." I added a bargain for good measure. "Oh, and if you do, God, I promise to give every ER patient a turkey sandwich, a warm blanket, and unlimited lemon pudding during the next week."
The tech left the room. I looked around, all this comfort surrounding me, and all I could do was think "How the hell am I going to sleep with all these wires hooked up to me?"
Well, I read a little, I flicked through the 1000 available TV channels, and finally, around 10 p.m., I turned off the lights. There's no way, I thought to myself, that I'm going to fall asleep. I pictured my wife at home, smiling, arms and legs spread out, sleeping soundly alone in our bed. I had the bad feeling that I had been set up.
Next thing I knew, though, I was being nudged in the shoulder. "Hey," I heard, "it's time to wake up." Through groggy, squinting eyes, I peered slowly around, clearing my mind's disorientation. That's right, I reminded myself, I was in the sleep-lab and, wouldn't you know, just had my best night's sleep in about ten years.
"You did great," the new male tech said. "Let's get you up and out of here." I got up, moved to the side of the bed, and he removed all of my electrodes. I got a quick shower, cleaning all the gel off of my head and body, brushed my teeth, got dressed, and headed home. I didn't need to hear the official results, I already knew--everything would come back normal.
Yeah, well, I'd like to call a penalty--the sleep-lab guys cheated. Unlimited channels, private room with bathroom included, big pillow-topped bed with down-filled comforter, the bed all to myself--who the heck couldn't sleep within those luxuries? The wires were but a mere distraction.
Have any of you had a sleep-lab study done? Similar experiences? Would you like to share how it went? What you wore? Let me lower my voice three octaves, like the great Barry White's, to a whisper and ask again. "Hey you, yeah you, how you doin'? What did you wear during your sleep lab?"
It took me some time, but I have my sleep all figured out now. Three, no four, things work for me. One, no alcohol. It's been shown to interrupt your sleep cycles, so I cut out my nightly glass of wine. Two, a great book. Three, Tylenol PM. Just one, occasionally. And four, in a pinch, 1/2 of a 10 mg Ambien tablet. I still have half of a thirty-day supply prescribed from last November. Take it on an empty stomach and within a half-hour, I'm a little woozy. Next thing I know, I wake up and it's morning time. And life is good. Bring on the day!
This isn't medical advice, just what works for me. Sometimes, though, it works too well. After taking a Tylenol PM several nights ago (I'm in the midst of several busy ER shifts), I woke up the next morning, horrified. On the ottoman beside our bed, my laptop computer sat with the top opened. Here, after taking my Tylenol PM, I had the brilliant idea to email a few people about their kind comments left on my blog. Rereading those emails this morning, I could only laugh and send those readers a follow-up email, apologizing for the ramblings. Forgive me if you got one.
Okay, I gotta run. I feel the Tylennnnnolll PPPPPMM kkickkkkkingggg innn aaagainnnnnnnn. Seriously. As we used to say when I was younger, "Good night, sleep tight. And don't let the bed bugs bite."
As always, big thanks for reading. Next post will be Wednesday, March 10. See you then...