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The restless: Students living the dream without sleep

Photo Illustration by Terra Molengraff
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By Kaitlin Williams, Deputy Magazine Editor
Published November 20, 2012

By the time I started counting how many probes were attached to my head and body, I was too tired to complete the task. I stopped at 28 and tried to settle into a comfortable position in the railed, hospital twin bed. Dawn, my ironically named night shift nurse at the KMS Sleep Center near Briarwood Mall, spoke to me over the intercom.

Photo Illustrations by Teresa Mathew

When do you usually go to sleep?


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“State your name for the video record,” she ordered. Saying my name to a disembodied voice while hooked up to probes in a dark room is on the short list of creepiest things I’ve ever had to do, but it had to be done.

I’d been waiting to participate in a sleep study for more than six months. I was hoping to get diagnosed and figure out a better treatment plan for the sleep problems I was facing — sleep paralysis and insomnia.

But even after spending 18 hours in a 10x12 room with probes stuck to my head, the data was inconclusive. For many college students like me, sleep is still an elusive end to a long day.

Some of us pull all-nighters to cram for an exam, some of us stay up until dawn drinking, but some of us have more reasons than others to brave the moonlight.

One well acquainted with the night

Fourth-year Medical student Elizabeth Chenoweth has learned to sleep whenever she can. During her third year, Chenoweth often had to work demanding hours — once staying at the hospital for 25 hours straight because of scheduling conflicts during her Obstetrics and Gynecology training.

Fourth-year Medical student Scott DeRoo said The Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education enforces an 80-hour per week work limit for trainees, but before these new regulations, he often worked 30-hour shifts.

“You do it because that’s what you need to do,” DeRoo said. “But in some ways, it’s actually a shame that things have changed because good learning goes on at night.”

Chenoweth said the ACGME has since altered regulations to cap the shift times for trainees at 16 hours, but the training is still taxing.

“Depending on what rotation you’re on, you can be working many, many hours or you could be having a pretty light rotation,” Chenoweth said. “But you still have to take exams and quizzes on top of that.”

Chenoweth said the first and second years of medical school are similar to the undergraduate years because students only have to be concerned with academic responsibilities. Though all-nighters are common, total sleep hours are unaltered.

“You might be up late cramming one night, but then you can make up for it later on,” Chenoweth said.

College students tend to accrue sleep debt — the difference between the doctor-recommended amount of sleep you should be getting and how much you actually get. And like regular debt, sleep debt can’t usually be “paid off” in one lump sum of a nap, according to a 2008 article in Scientific American. The only way to make up for lost sleep, according to the article, is to slowly increase how much you sleep per night — an unthinkable lifestyle change for many stressed students.

The third and fourth years of medical school, which are meant to prepare for the rigors of residency, involve much more sleep debt. Chenoweth and DeRoo currently have two months off to apply and interview for residencies, which is why they could meet me at a coffee shop to talk last Sunday. Meanwhile, the third-year medical students I e-mailed last week still haven’t gotten back to me.

Among the hardships of a restless schedule is illness, an inconvenience Chenoweth said her superiors in the health field understand. However, it’s difficult for interns to take sick time off because they don’t want to fall behind.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to be healthy,” Chenoweth said.

Sleep is often cited as a top determiner of overall health — physical and mental, long-term and short-term — but medical students like Chenoweth forgo sleep, guzzle down more coffee and stay awake to learn their trade.

“As hard as it is to work some of the hours you do, it’s important because it’s what you’re going to be doing next year,” Chenoweth said.

DeRoo said he’s looking forward to starting his residency soon. For him, the long hours have been worth it.

“If you choose to do that for your career, you have to accept that you may sacrifice a few hours of sleep here or there,” DeRoo said.

So dawn goes down to day

Just as high school is meant to prepare us for college, college is touted as training for the “real” world. However, for students like LSA senior Jessie Linton and LSA junior Zachari Broughman, the reality of work doesn’t wait until graduation. And with daytime classes, that work often has to be done after dark.

Linton is a server at Good Time Charley’s on South University Avenue. She works four to five shifts a week, scheduled from 8 p.m.