Southern Regional’s Sleep Center

Article by · January 30, 2018

I arrived at the center–housed in a medical office building next to the hospital–and was greeted by Angie McReynolds, a veteran nurse at Southern Regional who convinced hospital administrators to let her run the sleep center, which reopened last July.  She showed me to one of the lab’s four newly renovated bedrooms.

This is where the center’s patients come to spend the night. Most arrive by 9:00 p.m. Patients are then connected to electrodes from head to toe so the sleep technician can monitor their brain waves. Patients are monitored throughout the night for sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy, and other disorders. Around 5:00 a.m. the next day, patients are greeted with coffee, a light breakfast, and the opportunity to take a shower before leaving.

Since there’s a waiting list for night sleep studies, I did a test run during the day, using the in-home sleep study instead of the full six-hour night session.

Before turning in, McReynolds had a few questions for me. “Do you snore?” Apparently badly. “Sinus trouble?” Yep. “Midafternoon sleepiness?” Ditto. No surprise, I scored a 12 on the Epworth Sleepiness Scale (Anything above a 10 indicates sleepiness.)

After the questions, a respiratory belt was snapped around my upper chest to monitor my breathing. A thermistor (a two-prong attachment) was placed in my nostrils to pick up breathing patterns, and a finger probe was fitted to my left middle finger to monitor oxygen levels. McReynolds handed me the TV remote and a bottle of water, and bid me nighty-nighty before leaving the room.

Not only does lack of sleep lead to bad health, it leads to bad habits, including late night refrigerator raids for carbs and sweets.

I pulled off my shoes, pulled back the covers on the queen-size bed, and visually drank in the soothing grey and blue walls. The basket of toiletries on the nightstand and the three stars hovering on the wall above the headboard were nice touches. I lowered the volume on the TV and settled into the firmness of the Tempur-Pedic mattress.

And waited to fall asleep.

Sleep is an elusive quest for some 70 million Americans, according to the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research. Each year sleep disorders, sleep deprivation, and sleepiness add an estimated $15.9 billion to the national health care bill. The lack of seven to eight hours of solid shut-eye is to blame for a lot of our health and societal problems: obesity, depression, high blood pressure, cancer, car crashes–even hyperactive kids.

No one is more familiar with the problem than ear, nose and throat physician Dr. Jeffrey Kunkes, who is pushing the benefits of the sleep center.  In his 30 years in practice at Southern Regional, Kunkes has seen patients become more sleep-deprived and, as a result, more obese and burdened with other medical problems.

The medical field, Kunkes says, has known for more than half a century that sleep has been a problem. But it has only been recently that doctors have begun delving seriously into the science of sleep.

“We check out the body between midnight and 6:00 a.m.,” Kunkes said of the medical field.” Sleep is a very dynamic state. We’re in the middle of a crisis with overweight people; diabetes Type II is killing the economy.”

Not only does lack of sleep lead to bad health, it leads to bad habits, including late night refrigerator raids for carbs and sweets, Kunkes said (boy, does this guy have me pegged!)

While Congress squabbles over what to do about health care, Kunkes offers this prescription: “A healthy lifestyle starts with not living but sleeping,” said Kunkes, who is board-certified in sleep medicine. “We keep talking about the high cost of health care but a lot of these things revolve around sleep. Sleep is so integral. For mental and physical health, you need seven hours of sleep.”

Sleep center officials began reaching out to the community via health fairs and visits to doctors’ offices. Their work is paying off.  Patient volume has skyrocketed. The sleep center expected to get about 25 patients a month when it reopened last July. Instead, it averaged 50 patients a month during the first three months (when the private contractor ran it, the monthly average was about ten a month.) Patients are coming from Clayton and Henry counties, Macon, and as far as Tennessee and Alabama. The center got 100 referrals in October alone. Many calls are from truck companies anxious to make sure their drivers are up to the rigors of long haul travel. Sleep tests are mandatory for weight loss patients. The unexpected volume has hospital administrators considering expanding the center’s days of operation and staff.

Daily stress levels have prompted insurers to ask the sleep center to check patients for depression and anxiety attacks. “That’s something we never had to focus on 15 years ago when the sleep lab first opened,” McReynolds said.

An hour ticks by and I’ve still not crossed over into La La Land. Too much on my mind. I take a swig of water and change positions hoping that helps. At times I feel a blanket of drowsiness envelope me but sleep eludes me. I call it quits after two and a half hours of no real sleep.

Once McReynolds read my data, it was a given I would end up needing a six-hour sleep study to further look at my sleep issues.  In fact, Kunkes, who uses a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure or CPAP for his own sleep apnea, hinted not so subtly that a CPAP is probably in my immediate future.

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