It’s a horrible feeling to be captain of the ship when the ship goes down. That’s how Antonina Radzikowski, 55, says she felt after falling asleep while driving down a Maryland highway one afternoon in 1994.
Radzikowski and her husband, Phillip, were heading home after dropping their teen-age son off at a gifted and talented summer program. Roughly 60 miles away from home on I-70 near Hagerstown, Md., the car Radzikowski was driving smashed into the guardrail, flew over it, and fell 30 feet before landing on railroad tracks on the opposite side of the highway. Radzikowski’s husband died and she was left with severe brain injuries that shortened her attention span and led to her retirement from teaching.
“I sometimes felt drowsy before, but I never knew why until after the accident,” Radzikowski says. A sleep study revealed that she suffers from obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which her breathing stops for about 10 seconds to as long as a minute while she’s sleeping. Her effort to breathe wakes her up, and this stop-and-start cycle of waking to breathe can repeat hundreds of times a night. A person with sleep apnea isn’t aware of the frequent awakenings, but is likely to feel overwhelming sleepiness during the day.
There are many reasons for sleep deprivation. Each year, there are about 40 million people in the United States who suffer from sleeping disorders. An additional 20 million have occasional sleeping problems, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
People who work nights, for example, probably never completely adapt because our bodies want to be awake during the day and asleep at night. We are governed by the circadian rhythm, an internal clock that regulates sleep and wake cycles. Sleep deprivation can also result when people choose to skimp on sleep in favor of work, parties or late-night television.
Whatever the reason for sleep loss, research has shown that it takes a toll on us both mentally and physically. While we sleep, our bodies secrete hormones that affect our mood, energy, memory, and concentration. Testing has shown that with a driving simulator or a hand-eye coordination task, sleep-deprived people may perform just as badly as intoxicated people.
Sleep deprivation and fatigue have long been issues for professions that have traditionally held long work hours. Pilots have federal regulations that limit their work hours to eight hours of flying time within a 24-hour period. Truck drivers can’t drive more than 10 hours without a mandatory eight-hour break. Physician advocacy groups are pushing for the passage of the Patient and Physician Safety Protection Act, currently under consideration in Congress, that would set limits nationwide on the number of hours worked by medical residents.