|Yours truly, just off study cycle: glazed, but not fazed.|
Wired for the future. Wired for success. Wired to see if I could stay awake.
Today the wind picked up velocity as snow began to fall. It's not quite a snowstorm, but it could be if the frontal line were just a few miles different. Today's snowfall reminded me of my activities last week, during the first snowstorm of the season, when I went to a Green Bay hospital sleep lab for a wakefulness test.
Due to heavy snoring, and worse, stopping breathing for a time during sleep, some years back I became a candidate for a sleep device known as a CPAP (positive air pressure delivered through a mask). I would probably not be here to write this, had I not had this machine to back up my normal reflexes during sleep by keeping my airway open.
Its a great life, and even a better night's sleep, with such a device. I knew it worked for me, but the problem was the United States Coast Guard, which administers maritime licensing, has the responsibility to ensure the license holder is medically fit for service (recently, increased emphasis has been placed on a candidate's medical history, brought to the forefront in transportation accidents where health issues were a proven cause). My machines - I use one for home, another smaller one for travel - because of their age, would not produce a computer readout that would prove regular and appropriate usage. Therefore, I had to do a wakefulness test.
I only had a small inkling of what this test would consist of, and so fearing long hours with little to do, I brought along my computer, iPad, and a batch of paperwork. As it turned out, these were useful and helped the time fly by...but only between the "studies."
After many wires were glued or taped to my head, face, main neck arteries and legs, so that my movements (or lack thereof if I fell asleep) could be recorded, I was ready for Test #1.
My instructions had been to report to the sleep lab that morning within an hour of waking up. I did that. By 8:20 I was wired and ready to be tested. However, rather than comfortably working, reading or listening to music while I was tested, I found myself in a room that was purposely quiet, darkened but for one small light (drapes that allowed subdued light from the snowstorm outside remained open, but I wasn't to gaze outside). I was directed to sit in a very comfortable chair and instructed to make as few movements as possible in each 40-minute test period.
Forty minutes seems like a snap, and to stay fully alert during this time would be no problem, or so I thought. I had slept a good night's sleep, but I soon found that staring at a blank wall or the light switch, with occasional diversions to door hinges or door handle, brought on a degree of difficulty I had not anticipated. My efforts to review chronologically my first 64 years of life, the great movies, music playing in my head, and acquaintances near and far, soon mushed together. Maybe I tried too hard, at first, but the first test session could only have been made more difficult had a spinning pinwheel been placed on the wall, with a distant, monotone voice repeating, "You are getting sleepy..."
It was, in the end, efforts to keep my mind in the present and the fear of failure of this test, that kept me awake. And, later on, having read emails during my down time also raised adrenaline levels and helped me to focus on my immediate task: staying awake.
What would constitute failure?
Falling asleep would do it, in particular falling into the deep levels of one who was sleep deprived, as recorded and measured by the data collected. Forgot to mention that I was on camera the entire time, too, observed by the sleep lab attendant who monitored me somewhere down the hall, in a room where the data was received.
I said to her after the first study, my eyes still getting used to looking around in bright light, "This is more difficult than I had anticipated. It seems unfair to have the room darkened and lights turned down, without any stimulation whatsoever. You've designed this for me to fail!"
"I have to admit, it seems like a cruel test," the attendant said. "But this is a DOT test, designed by them, and we don't have a choice in how we do it. It's supposed to simulate driving a truck, being on the road for hours at a time."
OK, I thought. I can relate to that, driving, or standing at the helm, being on watch at night while gazing at a red light on the horizon for minutes, hours, with only the glow of compass and instruments from the ferry binnacle to cast light. But, I reminded her, truck drivers chewed gum or tobacco, listened to country tunes on the radio, or cranked a window wide open for a jolt of fresh air.
But, after the first sleep study session was completed, I had approximately 75 minutes to read and check emails. My disposition toward the study improved, to my surprise. When the lights were dimmed once again for the second, the third and fourth 40-minute study periods, I thought often of being that 18-wheeler driver, and how falling asleep might mean crossing into the opposing lane. That thought, and others like it, helped shock my system, helped me to focus my eyes on the light switch or the door handle. And, as is human nature, I occasionally scratched my nose, ear, or chin, and those motion, too, helped to break up the 40 minutes of otherwise silent boredom.
So at this juncture, I am wide awake (of course!) and await word back from the National Maritime Center in Falling Waters, WV (that blessed spot of earth proclaimed a mecca for Coast Guard record keeping by the ranking former Senator, patron Robert Byrd).
I fully expect to receive my captain's license renewal, unless there is some glitch. That reminds me: I had to leave a urine sample in a cup next to the wash basin before I left the study room, and I was never asked to sign a custody slip. That sample is to prove I had not doctored myself with caffeinated beverages or pills during the day in an attempt to cheat on my test. I hope the janitor didn't pour the remains of his coffee into my cup.
My future as a ferry captain is still unknown!
- Dick Purinton