A NIGHT IN THE SLEEP CENTER
I was having one of those periods in my life when I was having trouble sleeping. After several agonizing weeks of not sleeping well, I decided to go to the doctor. After asking me a series of questions about my sleep habits, the doctor said, “I’m going to send you to the Sleep Center for an overnight test to see if they can determine what exactly is going on.”
I had seen the sign before near the hospital. It said simply, “SLEEP CENTER.” I must admit that it always intrigued me as to what all went on at a Sleep Center. The very first time I saw the sign I thought maybe it was a place where the homeless go to sleep at night. Then I thought maybe it was a place where people go who want to rest and meditate and have a spiritual enlightenment.
But the doctor explained that a Sleep Center simply helps determine why you aren’t sleeping well and defines a plan to help you experience a restful sleep every single night. The doctor said, “It’s a piece of cake.”
“If you say it’s a piece of cake, that’s good enough for me,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
The next day I stopped by the Sleep Center which is on the 9th floor of the hospital to set up my appointment and get my admittance papers. A small, plump lady was sitting behind glass windows and her eyes were closed. It took me a moment to realize that she was asleep……she was sitting there in the Sleep Center, sound asleep. How appropriate, I thought. You walk into the Sleep Center and the receptionist is sound asleep.
I hated to wake her up, but I slid one of the windows open and said, “Hello there.” At first, I thought she was sitting on the floor. She seemed so small. But her size was definitely deceiving because she bellowed out in a loud megaphone voice, “Please don’t touch the glass windows! Sit down and I’ll be with you in a minute.”
After shuffling some papers, she barked out the procedures I was to follow. “Go home and complete these papers. Be here tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m. sharp. Don’t be late. Take a shower before you come. Be clean. Bring two-piece pajamas. No jewelry. You can bring your own pillow, but make sure it’s clean. Bring a toothbrush and shampoo. Bring something to read. And bring a snack in case you get hungry.”
I couldn’t help but wonder why all this was necessary just to come and sleep, but I was too intimidated by this little lady with her big voice to ask any questions. “Thank you, ma’am, I’ll be here,” I said, resisting the urge to salute her. I left, reassuring myself as I recalled the doctor’s words, “It’ll be a piece of cake.”
I arrived the next night, on time, with my little bag of essentials. This time it was a young man sitting behind the sliding glass window. After yawning, he asked for my name, shuffled some papers, yawned again, then put a name band on my wrist, and told me to sit in the waiting room. What an interesting place, I thought, sleep center receptionists who sleep and yawn. I wondered if maybe there wasn’t enough oxygen on the ninth floor.
After a few moments, a door opened and a husky, dark-haired woman, dressed in blue hospital attire, peered out and said, “Come with me.”
I picked up my bag and followed her.
“I’m Miss Hurtle,” she said. “I’ll be your attending nurse tonight.”
I was immediately fascinated by her name: Hurtle. I wondered if it was a shortened version of “Hurt-a-Little”, and couldn’t help but think that it was some kind of omen that this overnight venture was going to “hurt a little.”
We went down a long hallway and through a series of doors. After going through the fifth door, I jokingly said, “Wow, why all the doors? Are they afraid someone is going to try to escape?”
“Some have tried it,” she said in a husky voice, “but they failed.”
I decided not to ask her why they tried to escape or why they failed, but quietly concluded that I was definitely going to be there for the whole night.
We passed a series of “bedrooms” and stopped at room 911. I looked at the numbers and couldn’t help but wonder if 911 was another omen.
“This is your room for the night,” Miss Hurtle said.
The room looked just like a bedroom: a queen sized bed, two night stands, a TV mounted on the wall, and a bathroom. It seemed homey enough. Then I noticed the little round glass ball in the ceiling. “That’s a hidden camera,” I thought. “They’re going to be watching every move I make. I need to keep that in mind.”
“I’ll give you a few minutes to change into your pajamas,” Nurse Hurtle said. “I’ll leave and shut the door. I’ll be just across the hall. When you’re ready just open the door and leave it ajar. I’ll then come back in and get you hooked up for the night.”
She left and I changed into my pajamas, then opened the door ajar like she said. When she returned I thought I’d lighten things up a bit and said, “Nurse Hurtle, when is a door not a door?”
She looked at me with her round face and puffy eyes and said, “I have no idea.”
“When it’s ajar,” I laughed. “When you said to leave the door ajar, it made me think of that old grade school joke.”
She looked at me, blinked her puffy eyes and without even a hint of a smile said, “Frankly, we don’t have time to joke around. We’ve got to get you hooked up and ready for bed. If you have to go to the bathroom, go now because it will be difficult for you to go afterwards.”
I told her I was fine and wondered why it would be difficult to go later. Time would tell.
“Sit on the edge of the bed,” she ordered and told me she’d be right back. She left and came back with this long board that looked like the huge paddle in my junior high school’s principal’s office. The board had wires swirling and dangling from every direction.
I again tried some humor. “Do you have to be an electrician as well as a nurse to work in a sleep center?” I said.
Nurse Hurtle didn’t respond as she started to untangle wires.
“Do all those wires get hooked up to me?” I asked.
“Yes, they do,” she said.
“It looks intimidating,” I said. “Do you know what all those wires do?”
“I’m learning,” she said.
Learning? I thought. She’s learning?
With hesitation, I said, “How long have you worked in the sleep center?”
“This is my second night,” she said.
I tried not to feel panicky but I wondered what would happen if Nurse Hurtle made a mistake and messed up the wires. I took another look at all those wires, which in my mind, were enough to electrocute a person, and tried to remember how many doors I had to get through to get out of there. Maybe I would be lucky and be the first person to get through all those doors and escape Alcatraz.
Unfortunately, Nurse Hurtle stood between me and the door, and I knew it would be difficult for me to get past her husky body without a major wrestling match, which I would most likely lose. I was convinced that she must have played tackle for some semi-pro women’s football team before becoming a nurse.
Nurse Hurtle then took a large jar off her cart and opened it. The contents of the jar looked like sticky play dough.
“Now, sit still,” she ordered, “because I have to put this goop all over your body in order to hook up these wires and I don’t want to make any mistakes.”
“‘Goop?” I said. “What’s in the goop?”
“I have no idea,” she said. “All I know is that it works almost like super glue and it’s very difficult to get off. If you don’t take a shower in the morning and scrub and scrub you’re going to be in real trouble. I’ve been told that if you wait too long to get it off that when you do try to peel it off it takes some of your skin with it. So we don’t want that to happen now do we?”
I could tell that her husky voice was warning me to do exactly as she said or there would be dire consequences. Visions of going directly from the sleep center to the plastic surgeon for forty or more skin grafts went through my mind and I convinced myself that I would indeed take a shower and scrub and scrub and scrub some more.
Then, using a little scoop, Nurse Hurtle started dipping into the goop and slapping it on my head. “Be aware that getting this stuff out of your hair is the worst part. Just this morning I heard people screaming when they were in the shower trying to get this stuff out.”
“You’re very graphic,” I said.
“I tell it the way it is,” she said. “Now hold still. I have to put some of this goop on your face.”
With each scoop of the goop applied, she would reach to her cart, grab a round patch and paste it to the goop. I happened to glance in the bathroom mirror and could see that I was slowly turning into a horror movie monster, covered with large black poisonous moles, ugly enough to scare the bejeebies out of little kids on Halloween night. It was even scaring me.
After attaching the patches to my head, face, chest, arms, stomach, and legs, Nurse Hurtle stood back and stared at me. “That looks about right,” she said.
About right? I thought. One little mistake and I could possibly be electrocuted and you’re standing there saying it looks ABOUT right? I was starting to get very panicky.
“Now comes the challenging part,” Nurse Hurtle said. “Getting the right wires attached to the right patches.”
She looked down at the long board with all the wires and blinked her puffy eyes. She picked up one wire then put it back down. She picked up another wire, stared at it, then put it back down. She picked up a third wire, gave it a puzzled look, then snapped it to a patch on my head.
“Hmmm, I don’t think that’s the one that goes there,” she mumbled. She unsnapped it with a jerk that shook my brain and stared again at the maze of wires on the board. “I’ll be right back,” she said.
I sat there with goop all over my body and felt my heart go into an erratic panic mode. This has to be a nightmare, I thought. I’m really asleep and I’m having a nightmare. I’m in a Sleep Center with a nurse with puffy eyes who obviously can’t sleep, who is new on the job, who is probably a former wide world wrestling champion, BUT who doesn’t know one wire from another. This can’t be real. I HAS to be a nightmare.
Nurse Hurtle returned and with her was a tall, very husky bald man with large red blotches on his head. I couldn’t help wonder if he had been through the sleep clinic and didn’t shower and scrub right away and had to have skin transplants on his head.
“My name is Charlie,” he said. “We’re going to get you all hooked up. Everything’s going to be fine. And, by the way, you might as well know, my last name is Brown. Get it? Charlie Brown.” Then he laughed. “But don’t worry, I’m more competent than the cartoon character.”
He shook my hand and his hands were huge. I knew right then that he probably played center on the semi-pro football team with Nurse Hurtle or that he was also a world champion wrestler. There’s no way I was going to get past these two football players and escape.
One by one he hooked the mass of wires to my body. After what seemed like forever, he was done.
“Okay, stand up and look in the mirror,” he said. “See what you look like before going to bed.”
I looked in the mirror and was surprised. I no longer looked like a monster. I now looked like an alien from outer space with patches and wires sprouting from all parts of my body. I would still scare the bejeebies out of kids. It would be the perfect Halloween outfit.
“How do people sleep with all this wires and patches on them?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” Charlie said. “Once you relax, you’ll be fine. It’s a piece of cake.”
Where have I heard that before? I thought.
“You have to give us a minimum of four hours of sleep for the sleep test to be valid,” Nurse Hurtle said in her firm husky voice, “Or you’ll have to come back and do it all over again.”
Believe me, I’ll give you four hours, even if I have to fake it, I thought. I am NOT going through this again!
“Also, we need for you to spend some time sleeping on your left side, then on your right side, and then on your back,” Nurse Hurtle said.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “You’re going to have to bring a crane in here to turn me with all this stuff on me. Besides, if I’m suppose to sleep, how am I going to remember to sleep on all sides?”
“You’ll do fine,” Charlie said. “It all works out.”
He and Nurse Hurtle then helped me crawl into bed, careful to keep all the wires attached. I was afraid to move. It was at that moment that I identified with Frankenstein. Once I was asleep they were going to shoot bolts of electricity through me and i was going to wake up as a monster.
“I hope you don’t have to go to the bathroom during the night,” Charlie said, “but if you do, we’ll come in and unhook the main wires. But I just want you to know that it’s quite an ordeal to go the bathroom with all these wires attached. It can be done, but it’s not easy.”
“I think I can make it through the night without going,” I said, as I crossed my fingers.
“We’ll be in the room across the hall monitoring you,” Charlie said. “We can hear you if you call us.”
After they left, I kept telling myself, Just a few more hours. Just a few more hours.”
I could picture Charlie Brown and Lucy, or Nurse Hurtle, sitting across the hall laughing at me in my alien attire trying to sleep. I was going to be their entertainment for the night. They were going to take bets on how long I could go before having to go to the bathroom.
In order to get to sleep, I decided that instead of counting sheep I would count wires attached to my body. The last number I remember was twenty-seven.
Then, it happened. The urge to go to the bathroom came in the middle of the night. And it was a strong urge. I tried to dismiss it and go back to sleep but it wouldn’t go away. If I lay here and wet the bed with all these wires attached to me I’ll be fried to death, I thought. I have to call for help.
“Nurse Hurtle,” I yelled. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
Within seconds, Nurse Hurtle appeared. I was sure she lost the bet and was irritated.
“This isn’t going to be easy,” she said, which I assumed was a warning.
“First i have to unplug a couple of the main wires,” she said. She looked at the board and seemed puzzled. “It has to be this one and this one,” she said. “No, it must be this one.”
“Nurse Hurtle, I really have to go bad,” I said. “Please hurry.”
“Don’t rush me,” she snapped. “I’m trying to figure this out.”
I tried to cross my legs but with all the wires I couldn’t do it.
After a few more minutes of agony she finally said, “I got it. Now, sit up, but be careful.”
With her strong arms, she practically lifted me out of the bed. With one arm around me and the other one holding the huge board with all the wires attached, she said, “Now, be very careful and shuffle, don’t walk. Shuffle, slow and easy.”
Shuffle? I thought. If I don’t run I’ll never make it. Then I realized that with all the wires attached I couldn’t take big steps if I wanted to. I HAD to shuffle.
“I really have to go,” I said.
“Hold it!” she yelled. “Just keep shuffling and HOLD it! Don’t you make a mess for me.”
After a few more bladder contractions and several shuffles, we made it to the toilet. It was then that I realized I had wires inside my pajamas and outside my pajamas. I was trapped. It would take forever to get undone and I was going to make a mess.
“How can I do this?”I yelled. “I’ve got wires everywhere?”
“Here, let me unfasten a couple of wires,” Nurse Hurtle said.
“Hurry,” I urged.
“I’m hurrying,” she yelled. “Don’t pressure me.” Then after I heard her say, “Oops,” and “Oh, no,” several times, she finally said, “Okay, you can go now.”
At that moment I was certain that I heard a choir of heavenly hosts singing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” The moment was so beautiful.
Nurse Hurtle snapped me out of my ecstasy by saying, “We need to get you back to bed. Remember, you have to give us four hours of sleep. First, let me get you re-wired.”
She began working on the wires and I could hear her becoming more and more frustrated. Then I heard a panicky, “Oh, no, how did that happen?”
I looked down and saw wires wrapped around her wrist and one of her legs. We were hooked together–like Siamese twins. There was no way we were going to get through the bathroom door and shuffle back to the bed.
“Reach over and pull that cord,” she ordered, referring to the emergency cord in the bathroom. “I need Charlie to get in here and help. Pronto!”
I pulled the cord and Charlie arrived immediately. He came into the bathroom and just stood there, staring at us.
“If you even crack a smile, I’ll beat you to a pulp,” Nurse Hurtle shouted. I knew she meant it….and so did Charlie.
Without saying a word, Charlie started to work his magic on the wires. In fact, no one said a single word from that moment on. Charlie got the wires untangled and re-snapped into place and together they got me back in bed. They turned out the lights and left.
It was then that I heard this loud laughter in the hallway outside my door. It was Charlie’s voice. The loud laughter was followed quickly by sounds of wrestling and someone being tossed against the wall. I smiled and fell asleep.
Believe it or not, i didn’t wake up until I smelled coffee.
“It’ 5:30 and time to get up,” Nurse Hurtle said. “I brought you some fresh perked coffee and a glass of orange juice. Take your time and enjoy it. Charlie will come in and get those wires off in a few minutes, then you can jump in the shower. Remember to scrub hard. Be ready to go by 6:30 a.m.”
I took a quick glance to see if she was wearing the championship wrestling belt and asked, “How did I do?”
“You did fine,” she said. “You got a good four hours in and we got a good reading on you. The doctor will go over it and call you in a few days and let you know the results.”
An hour later I walked out of the sleep clinic and then out of the building. I don’t think I remember ever seeing such a beautiful morning. I took a deep breath and burst into song: “Oh, what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day.” I looked at the sign that said, SLEEP CENTER. I now knew firsthand what goes on in there. And if anyone asks about it, I’ll just say, “It’s a piece of cake.”