Hospital’s Sleep Disorders Center provides rest for weary

By JEANIE RIESS Staff Writer The Greenwood Commonwealth

The Sleep Disorders Center at Greenwood Leflore Hospital hardly feels like part of a bustling hospital.

Thanks to money raised by the KING club, the two rooms used to diagnose all sorts of sleep disorders are each complete with a plush bed, a softly lit lamp, a television, newly painted walls and new floors. KING, which stands for Kind Investing Nurtures Growth, is the employee branch of the hospital’s foundation. Since 2006, the club, which boasts 403 members, has raised more than $471,000 for improvements for the hospital.

“We’re trying to make it feel like a little hotel room,” said Sherry Howard, the sleep center’s manager and a respiratory therapist who has worked at Greenwood Leflore for 27 years.

The process of diagnosing sleep disorders can be uncomfortable, since patients have to be asleep for doctors to understand what’s going on. And how can a person get a good night’s sleep if he knows he’s being watched and monitored from the moment he closes his eyes?

A patient at the sleep center is hooked up to a variety of machines to monitor breathing, leg movements, oxygen levels and other important components to diagnosing sleep disorders. Those cords, coupled with anxiety about the exam, are enough to cause restlessness. So the sleep center’s staff went about trying to make the experience as comfortable as possible.

The center is the only accredited sleep clinic in the Delta between Jackson and Memphis, opening its doors to patients in 1995.

Now both of its rooms are filled every night.  

Howard said the clinic sees about 45 patients a month. They come in at night, they get hooked up to the machines, and then it’s lights out while a nocturnal technician watches a computer outside the door.

Technicians collect six to seven hours of sleep data. That’s 900 pages of information about one night of sleep.

Dr. John Hey, who runs the sleep center, is looking for a few things. The most common sleep disorder is sleep apnea, which is when a patient stops breathing during the night begins to suffocate and then wakes up. Besides the obvious dangers of apnea, the condition also causes stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisone to pour into the bloodstream. Apnea interrupts sleep and can also cause a patient to feel terrible the next day.

Other common sleep disorders Howard said she sees regularly are narcolepsy and REM behavior disorder. Narcolepsy is a condition that causes patients to fall asleep at random moments of the day.

Howard said that she’s seen all kinds of REM behavior disorders. The affliction causes people to act during REM, the deepest layer of sleep, during which the body is more or less paralyzed. Sleepwalking is a common action taken by those who suffer REM behavior disorder.

“We’ve had people who will get up and cook a meal in their sleep,” Howard said.

An article in The New Yorker reports that the science of sleep has been studied since the early 1900s and was piloted by Nathaniel Kleitman, a doctor who became interested in the curious state of being neither awake nor dead. An eccentric man, Kleitman often used himself for sleep deprivation experiments. He once spent six weeks underground in Mammoth Cave, Ky., to see if he could stay awake for 28 hours. He could not.

The science of sleep has even made its way into the animal kingdom. Fish have their own distinct sleeping patterns the same way humans do. Dolphins keep half their brains awake during sleep so that they do not drown.

The discovery of REM sleep in 1953 led to an even more intense academic study of the science of sleep. New technologies have made sleep studies cheaper and more widely available, and there are currently more than 2,000 sleep clinics in operation in the United States.

And they are well-needed. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from a chronic sleep disorder.

Howard said that many problems associated with a lack of sleep, however, are simply the result of our habits.

“Our internal clocks are all messed up,” she explained.

She said light serves an important purpose in waking us up in the morning, and with all the light with which we surround ourselves just before bed, from television screens to cellphones, we’re disturbing the balance that our bodies have perfected.

Half a century ago, Americans went to sleep and woke up according to the light. According to studies by Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Americans used to fall asleep the minute it turned dark. They would then wake in the middle of the night and pray, smoke, chat or some other activity, before going back to sleep until the sun came up.

Ben Franklin was apparently fond of sitting this awkward hour “between sleeps” sitting naked and reading in a chair.

For the reason that sleep disorders can sometimes be based on habit and not something more genetically coded, Dr. Hey tries to avoid prescribing away problems.

“Dr. Hey would rather his patients not have a sleep aid,” said Howard. “He wants to get to what’s causing the insomnia.”

Sleep studies at Greenwood Leflore help get to the heart of the problems people who don’t sleep well face, so that a more comprehensive solution can be reached.

And thanks to the KING club, patients might be a little more comfortable arriving at that solution than they were before.

• Contact Jeanie Riess at 581-7235 or jriess@gwcommonwealth.com.