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Stay awake for this: RFAH opens sleep center

In an attempt to help groggy patients and - more importantly - prevent long-term health issues, a sleep center will open Tuesday, April 12, at the River Falls Area Hospital.

Doctors at the hospital and the River Falls Medical Clinic hope their combined efforts on the project will help treat and identify people who have breathing problems that affect sleeping.

Their interest in helping comes at a time when obesity - the No. 1 cause of sleep apnea - is at an all-time high.

Couple that with the many health problems associated with a lack of a good night's sleep - high blood pressure, heart disease, depression - and local doctors jumped to action.

"You could be a little snorer and have a big problem or be a loud snorer and just be loud," said Dan Zimmerman, a doctor who, along with Jeff Larsen, is trained to provide sleep consultation and treatment options for all patients at the center. "But the only way to find out if you have a disorder is to get tested."

Without the sleep center, any doctor could identify symptoms related to basic sleeping disorders. But those patients were forced to travel to the Twin Cities for treatment, testing and, if necessary, equipment for sleeping.

Now, almost everything those patients need to treat their disorder will be available in River Falls.

"We definitely saw a need for this locally. In the local area, there are about 300 people a year diagnosed with a sleep disorder," Zimmerman said. "And once those people are treated they rave about how much better they feel."

The sleep center consists of two patient rooms and one tech room located in a quieter wing of the hospital. Since last fall, the rooms - redesigned to provide a quieter atmosphere - have been remodeled from their previous in-patient design.

"We really want it to be a hotel-type experience," said Bill Frommelt, sleep center manager. "All the amenities they need will be here so the patients feel like they are staying at home and not in the hospital."

The sleep rooms have wooden floors, a private shower and toilet, a comfortable bed, and are also sound proof to provide the comforts of home as best as possible. A TV and VCR are also available.

If a sleep disorder is suspected, a doctor will recommend the patient stay in one of the sleep rooms for an overnight study called a polysomnogram.

The patient will arrive between 9 and 9:30 p.m. with any personal items that help them feel more comfortable.

A sleep technician - who stays in the next room to monitor the patient - will explain the polysomnogram and then attach electrodes to the patient's head, legs and chest.

A finger clip will be used to monitor the heart rate and oxygen level. An air flow monitor will be placed near the patient's nose and visual and audio monitors will be present.

"The patient really should be as comfortable as possible. That's important," Larsen said. "We want them to feel as natural as possible."

The study is not painful and shouldn't interfere with the person's sleep. The room will be dark while the sleep technician monitors brain wave activity, breathing, heart rate, oxygen saturation, muscle tension, and movement.

The patient will leave between 6 and 7 a.m. the next day. A multiple sleep latency test is usually done the following day to evaluate the degree of sleepiness and the patterns of sleep during daytime naps.

A follow-up appointment with Larsen or Zimmerman will reveal the test results and any needed treatment.

Sleepy beginning

Last fall doctors identified an increasing number of patients with potential sleep disorders. The most common of those conditions - sleep apnea - causes people to stop breathing during the night sometimes hundreds of times and often for a minute or longer. The result is restless and poor sleep.

Seeing more and more patients with this problem, Zimmerman approached hospital President Randy Farrow to see what could be done.

Farrow told Zimmerman that Larsen was also interested in helping sleep disorder patients, so the two got to work.

The rooms were soundproofed and darkened. The hospital contracted the sleep tech and equipment from a North Dakota company.

Heather Smith, hospital director of operational improvement, said patients are booked up through April.

"We think the sleep center will work out very well," she said. "We're excited about it and hope to see a number of patients from Ellsworth come to River Falls. There was a definite need in the area for this."

At risk?

More than 25% of the population experiences sleep disturbances during their lives. Five percent deal with sleep apnea.

Other disorders include narcolepsy and restless leg syndrome.

People who answer "yes" to any of the following questions, could have a sleep disorder:

  • Are you a loud snorer, disturbing your bedroom companion?

  • Do you feel tired and groggy on wakening?

  • Do you experience sleepiness and fatigue during waking hours?

  • Are you overweight?

  • Have you been observed to choke, gasp or hold your breath during sleep?

    Call the sleep center at 425-6115 for more information.

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