St. Agnes Hospital offers help for sleep-related problems

While health professionals encourage people to get from seven to eight hours of sleep nightly, millions of Americans are falling well short of that mark. Many are getting just five to six hours and recent studies have shown that more than 20 percent of the population may be suffering from some type of sleep disorder.

St. Agnes Hospital now has a renovated and expanded facility dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders.


The St. Agnes Sleep Center is open to adults and children as young as 3 years old. The patients are usually referred to the facility by their primary care doctor or cardiologist.

Dr. Kala Davis-McDonald, chief of pulmonary medicine at the hospital on Wilkens Avenue, said many sleep centers will see increased traffic for sleep disorders, due to several factors.

"The greater awareness of sleep disorders is the first part, and then comes the understanding," Davis-McDonald said. "As a result, people will be diagnosed more often. But the third part is due to our increasing obesity rates."

Among the more common problems that can be diagnosed and treated are sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome and periodic limb movement.

"Sleep medicine itself is still a relatively young field," Davis-McDonald said. "The understanding of sleep medicine is continuing to evolve."

Many of the beds at the local center are filled with those suffering from obstructive sleep apnea, during which breathing can become labored or stop completely. The lack of oxygen can lead to other health problems, such as chronic fatigue, memory loss, and heart disease.

"It's absolutely painful to watch a patient with severe sleep apnea," said Paul Shearin, a respiratory therapist who serves as the center's administrative director. "They're breathing, and then they stop. You're waiting for them to take their next breath, and then they don't. When air gets in, they finally take a gasping breath."

Children are not immune to the dangers of sleep disorders, particularly apnea and sleepwalking. Many children who suffer from sleep apnea eventually undergo surgery to remove their tonsils and adenoids.


"We're realizing that sleep apnea can impact children," Davis-McDonald said. "The consequences include developmental delays, delays in growth, and behavioral problems. With treatment, we're actually seeing some of those problems rectified."

The sleep center offers a peaceful environment for its patients. Its five rooms feature standard queen-size beds and a shower. One room is reserved for a pediatric patient, and includes a sleeper chair for parents who wish to stay overnight with their child.

"We've tried to create a very comfortable environment," Shearin said. "We didn't want it to be sterile and technical."

Typically, patients arrive at 8:30 p.m. and leave the next day between 6 and 7 a.m.

Patients with symptoms of sleep apnea are initially tested for brain-wave patterns, eye movements, and oxygen levels. Continuous cardiac monitoring is also a part of the testing. A microphone is attached to the patients, for staff to hear snoring and sleep-talking patterns.

"We collect a lot of information during the course of one night," said Davis-McDonald, a graduate of Stanford University Medical School who has been at St. Agnes for five years. "If you need treatment for sleep apnea, you will come back on another night and do the same study. But this time, we will put you on the CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine."


The machine transmits compressed air through a mask into the nose. Once the airways are opened, patients can breathe regularly throughout the night.

"If they respond well to the CPAP study, within seven to 10 days they should be able to have a machine at home," Davis-McDonald said. "They can use it every night when they're sleeping, but that's just the beginning. For the majority of patients, it's usually a four to six-week transition period. I consider a patient fully treated when they can sleep an entire night without any discomfort."

Once that happens, patients have a good chance of complete freedom from sleep apnea.

"To actually treat (sleep apnea) is relatively simple," Shearin said. "But we need to have people who are willing to recognize that they need some help and are willing to accept it.

"This is a condition that is relatively easy to manage and take care of," he said. "And the treatment can make a dynamic change in a person's life."

For more information on the St. Agnes Hospital Sleep Center, call 410-368-3245 or go to http://www.stagnes.org.