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Dreaming of Sleep : High-Tech Center Helps Wired Patients Get Some Blessed Shut-Eye


The sun rises, the sun sets. People are awake in the day, and at night we rest.

This is the natural rhythm of our lives and no amount of technology--or caffeine--has managed to change it.

With the same certainty that the sun will rise at dawn, people will--and must--sleep. Even in today's harried, 10-hour-workday world.

Some people do it anywhere. They sleep in church, during class, on a crowded subway next to complete strangers. But sleep does not always come easily, and sometimes dreams are anything but sweet.

For Paul Surratt, rest has been an elusive goal, a hazy illusion that never comes clearly into focus.

"I wake up and I'm not rested. I'm not rested at all," Surratt said. "I feel like I'm in a fog."

After years of feeling tired, Surratt recently turned to the North Valley Sleep Disorders Center in Mission Hills, which caters to those who are sleepless in the Valley and anywhere else.

For 15 years the center has treated people with insomnia, severe nightmares, night terrors and sleep apnea, a disorder in which sufferers awake repeatedly during the night and briefly stop breathing due to blocked nasal passages.

Michael M. Stevenson, director of the center and a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, said sleep disorders are common, but awareness of possible treatment is not.

"It's kind of a silent illness," Stevenson said. "People struggle along with poor sleep. The quality of their life goes down. They get crabby, irritable, fatigued."

In some cases, sleep disorders can lead to other problems such as stroke, heart attack and obesity, Stevenson said.

And when loved ones can no longer tolerate snoring that is so loud it puts any self-respecting jackhammer to shame, relationships can suffer.

Surratt, a 48-year-old businessman with a Southern accent and a make-the-most-out-of-life attitude, has already decided that this will not be his fate.

"I got tired of being tired, you know?" he said. "All my get up and go got up and went."

On this night Surratt has come to the center's sleep lab eager to try out a machine that may help in his efforts to beat apnea. He arrives at the lab by 9:30 p.m., carrying a pair of blue pajamas and a copy of Rolling Stone magazine.

Here, in the sleep lab--a third-floor suite made up of two bedrooms and a monitoring area--Surratt will spend the night.

This is not exactly the Ritz, but it's not shabby, either.

Except for a video camera that hangs in front and above the queen-size bed and two box-like pieces of equipment next to it, the rooms look like your standard budget motel. A TV hangs from the wall, below it is a plastic plant. There's a sink with a mirror above and to the side, a bathroom with a shower.

But privacy is not part of the deal.

In the monitoring area are two large, steel machines--polysomnographs--bedecked with rows of gold, black and silver dials. Looking more like well-dressed stereo equipment than medical instruments, these machines, once they are connected to a patient, can tell just about everything about a sleeping person, from the number of times the sleeper kicks or blinks to their breathing pattern. Meanwhile, their every action is monitored by a video camera.

Surratt has been through it before, earlier this month when he stayed at the lab. Afterward, Stevenson diagnosed his apnea.

"I woke up 139 times," he says.

Bob Branam, a polysomnograph technician, introduces Surratt to the CPAP, the machine that may allow Surratt to have a peaceful rest.

It is a completely uninviting contraption, a mask connected to a long, plastic tube and a box-like machine that sends a flow of air down his throat to keep his air passages open, allowing him to breathe well and sleep without waking. The sensation of air gushing in is something like sticking your head out the window of a moving car.

None of this intimidates Surratt.

Compared to spending more years being forgetful or late to work sometimes because he's trying to catch up on sleep, it's worth a try.

"It feels kind of strange," he says from behind the mask while being fitted. "I feel like I'm getting ready for blastoff. . . . I just hope I can get a good night's sleep. I hope I get rested."

Next, Surratt is wired. The mask comes off and Branam takes several electrodes, thin wires of various colors, and with a glue-like paste connects the metal ends to Surratt's head, his face, his chest and other key points on his body.

The wires are then connected to the polysomnograph.

"I wonder if the astronauts felt like this," Surratt quips.

Back in the bedroom, Surratt lays down in bed and is strapped in the mask again.

By now it's 11 p.m. Lights out. But he isn't sleepy.

"We'll try it," Surratt says. "If it doesn't work, we'll watch the 'Tonight Show.' I'm used to going to sleep at 2 or 3 in the morning."

Sitting in the monitoring room, Branam watches Surratt the next few hours, checking his readings and adjusting the flow of air through the mask.

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