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The restless: Students living the dream without sleep

Photo Illustration by Terra Molengraff
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By Kaitlin Williams, Deputy Magazine Editor
Published November 20, 2012

By the time I started counting how many probes were attached to my head and body, I was too tired to complete the task. I stopped at 28 and tried to settle into a comfortable position in the railed, hospital twin bed. Dawn, my ironically named night shift nurse at the KMS Sleep Center near Briarwood Mall, spoke to me over the intercom.

Photo Illustrations by Teresa Mathew

When do you usually go to sleep?

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“State your name for the video record,” she ordered. Saying my name to a disembodied voice while hooked up to probes in a dark room is on the short list of creepiest things I’ve ever had to do, but it had to be done.

I’d been waiting to participate in a sleep study for more than six months. I was hoping to get diagnosed and figure out a better treatment plan for the sleep problems I was facing — sleep paralysis and insomnia.

But even after spending 18 hours in a 10x12 room with probes stuck to my head, the data was inconclusive. For many college students like me, sleep is still an elusive end to a long day.

Some of us pull all-nighters to cram for an exam, some of us stay up until dawn drinking, but some of us have more reasons than others to brave the moonlight.

One well acquainted with the night

Fourth-year Medical student Elizabeth Chenoweth has learned to sleep whenever she can. During her third year, Chenoweth often had to work demanding hours — once staying at the hospital for 25 hours straight because of scheduling conflicts during her Obstetrics and Gynecology training.

Fourth-year Medical student Scott DeRoo said The Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education enforces an 80-hour per week work limit for trainees, but before these new regulations, he often worked 30-hour shifts.

“You do it because that’s what you need to do,” DeRoo said. “But in some ways, it’s actually a shame that things have changed because good learning goes on at night.”

Chenoweth said the ACGME has since altered regulations to cap the shift times for trainees at 16 hours, but the training is still taxing.

“Depending on what rotation you’re on, you can be working many, many hours or you could be having a pretty light rotation,” Chenoweth said. “But you still have to take exams and quizzes on top of that.”

Chenoweth said the first and second years of medical school are similar to the undergraduate years because students only have to be concerned with academic responsibilities. Though all-nighters are common, total sleep hours are unaltered.

“You might be up late cramming one night, but then you can make up for it later on,” Chenoweth said.

College students tend to accrue sleep debt — the difference between the doctor-recommended amount of sleep you should be getting and how much you actually get. And like regular debt, sleep debt can’t usually be “paid off” in one lump sum of a nap, according to a 2008 article in Scientific American. The only way to make up for lost sleep, according to the article, is to slowly increase how much you sleep per night — an unthinkable lifestyle change for many stressed students.

The third and fourth years of medical school, which are meant to prepare for the rigors of residency, involve much more sleep debt. Chenoweth and DeRoo currently have two months off to apply and interview for residencies, which is why they could meet me at a coffee shop to talk last Sunday. Meanwhile, the third-year medical students I e-mailed last week still haven’t gotten back to me.

Among the hardships of a restless schedule is illness, an inconvenience Chenoweth said her superiors in the health field understand. However, it’s difficult for interns to take sick time off because they don’t want to fall behind.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to be healthy,” Chenoweth said.

Sleep is often cited as a top determiner of overall health — physical and mental, long-term and short-term — but medical students like Chenoweth forgo sleep, guzzle down more coffee and stay awake to learn their trade.

“As hard as it is to work some of the hours you do, it’s important because it’s what you’re going to be doing next year,” Chenoweth said.

DeRoo said he’s looking forward to starting his residency soon. For him, the long hours have been worth it.

“If you choose to do that for your career, you have to accept that you may sacrifice a few hours of sleep here or there,” DeRoo said.

So dawn goes down to day

Just as high school is meant to prepare us for college, college is touted as training for the “real” world. However, for students like LSA senior Jessie Linton and LSA junior Zachari Broughman, the reality of work doesn’t wait until graduation. And with daytime classes, that work often has to be done after dark.

Linton is a server at Good Time Charley’s on South University Avenue. She works four to five shifts a week, scheduled from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m., but she said she's often home around 4 a.m. if the night is particularly busy or she decides to hang out with co-workers after hours. Linton added that about half the staff are students at nearby universities.

“Everyone knows what it’s like to be the only sober person at a party. That’s what (working at Charley’s) is like,” Linton said. “At least we have each other.”

Linton said she’s always been “nocturnal.” She waitressed in high school, so she knew the job at Charley’s would be a good fit. She makes about $200 a shift — money she’s mostly saving for the future.

Broughman is a building manager at the University Unions. He’s primarily assigned to work at the Michigan League, though his schedule varies in shift times, length and location.

“(Before college) I was more of a morning person, but I’m kind of anything now,” Broughman said.

His earliest class is at 9 a.m., and though the latest he tends to get off work is 2 a.m., once a month each building manager pulls an all-nighter to monitor the door to the Inn at the League, the hotel in the League. Broughman said the first few hours aren’t bad, but it can become a battle to stay awake as the night wears on. However, he claims to not be burdened by sleep debt.

“If I can sleep in just one day after, I’ll be fine,” Broughman said.

Broughman added that he’s used to a varied weekly schedule since he started working in the Unions freshman year and has worked as a building manager for more than a year. He’s taking 16 credits, and though he said academics come first, his job can get in the way.

“There are times when it’s kind of hectic,” Broughman said. “I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving break.”

Linton said her work can be “frustrating” and “physically exhausting,” so she’s only taking 10 credits this semester and plans on taking 11 credits winter term.

Sleep habits account for the largest amount of discrepancy in the grade point averages of college students, according to a 2000 study published in the Journal of American College Health. Later wake-up times were most closely tied with lower grades.

This is a study I can relate to. I had to take two Incompletes in classes last semester, and the largest contributing factor was the persistent sleep problems I encountered that made attendance difficult.

The study also claims low grades are very closely associated with a high number of paid or volunteer work hours per week.

This semester, I’m juggling 12 credit hours along with three part-time jobs — one of which is in the restaurant industry. The effects of this schedule on my GPA remain to be seen, but for me, the only benefit of a predisposition to getting less sleep is more waking time to work and socialize.

Linton said despite working about 35 hours a week, she still manages to get adequate sleep most nights. Her earliest class starts at 1 p.m., and she seldom has to wake up before 10:30 a.m. For Linton, working nights is worth sacrificing social opportunities and altering her sleep schedule.

“I’m taking out loans, and my parents are very willing to help, but I’d rather make my own spending money,” she said.

Miles to go before I sleep

For others, staying up isn’t a choice — it’s a part of who they are.

Jonathan Poczatek doesn’t have a sleep schedule. When we met at a coffee shop on a Friday afternoon, he exclaimed that he woke up at 8 a.m. for the first time in a long while.

The LSA sophomore’s earliest class is at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. While sports and after-school activities kept him in check in high school, Poczatek has become accustomed to an adaptive, and at times sleepless, schedule in college.

“In college, I can go all the way around the clock,” Poczatek said.

Poczatek was on a prescription for Adderall, an amphetamine oftentimes prescribed by physicians to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but he recently stopped taking the medication because the added benefit of increased concentration didn’t outweigh the downsides of crashing and having to increase dosage for effectiveness.

“It’s really just speed,” Poczatek said.

Poczatek said it’s “obvious” when students are abusing amphetamines to focus in class and in the library, but he’s not willing to trade off sleep and well-being for the corrective powers of Adderall and medications of its kind.

I’ve tried several sleep aids, which have worked to varying degrees, but, like Poczatek’s experience with prescription medication, the benefits weren’t worth the side effects.

Poczatek said a full night’s sleep is rare. Instead he operates on two-to-six hour naps and he hardly ever feels tired. He said he’s tried cutting down on caffeine and altering his schedule in the past, but he’s never slept much. He added that his mother understands because she’s always been the same way, and his housemates are getting used to his almost constant wakefulness.

Even without the Adderall prescription, Poczatek sometimes stays up all night to participate in Hack-A-Thons or just play video games with friends. He hopes to transfer into the College of Engineering to pursue computer science next year. Poczatek said the life of a programmer — wherein work can be done from home, at any time, as long as its completed by a deadline — appeals to his night owl preferences.

Poczatek told me his new espresso machine is the “best thing ever,” and he said he’ll use it frequently to stay alert as coursework picks up near the end of the semester and to play a new video game. He said losing out on sleep will be compromising, but worth it.

“I’m not going to feel like a person for a while,” Poczatek said.

There are times when I feel more like a creature of the night than a person, but there’s no better place than college to find fellow creatures. They’re studying in the UGLi until dawn. They’re sweeping up the bottles dropped at the bar. They’re online, asking, “you up?”


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