For 14 years, Edwina Polk has watched people sleep, or at least watched people's brains while they sleep.
"People always want to know, 'Are you watching me all night?'" says Polk, a supervisor at the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorder Center. "But I have so much to do, I don't have time to stare. I'm watching brain waves and working on charts. If I watched people sleep on a monitor all night, I would go to sleep too."
Standing in one of the center's comfortable patient rooms on a floor of the Clinic's InterContinental Suites Hotel, Polk is showing off the dozens of blue and red wires used to record people's sleep patterns. She explains these wires are taped to a patient's head, arms, and chest during a polysomnogram test, used to diagnose sleep apnea, a disorder that causes a person to stop breathing during sleep.
Polk admits she never thought about the importance of sleep until her work became about sleep.
"Everybody is different. I personally need seven hours; if I don't get that I'm not refreshed. I'm tired and groggy and I can be moody," she says with a laugh. "It's important to get the right amount for yourself for cell regeneration. We even burn calories during sleep."
Two years after starting work as a sleep technician, Polk herself was diagnosed with sleep apnea. The irony isn't lost on her.
"I thought I was too young to get it," the now 49-year-old says. "Prior to the diagnosis I was sleepy and working nights. I was in a fog. I would tell my sisters that I would do something, and they'd show up at my house and I wouldn't remember saying anything about hanging out."
Polk, a native Clevelander, has worked a variety of shifts through her years at the center and since becoming a manager in January. This week, the mother of two grown children is starting a new middle shift, but could return to nights shortly.
Anyone can have sleep apnea, Polk says, but there are some major risk factors, including excessive snoring, obesity, extreme tiredness, high blood pressure and being over 50. Polk says she understands when people are reticent to use the CPAP machine mask every night at home to help their breathing, as she was too.
"I have a lot of success when I share that I wear the mask as well," she says. "That's why we can relate, where a patient may not open up to a provider. I love to help people when you see they have really bad apnea. You see them flopping like a fish in the bed during the test and then, once they're on the CPAP, they stay in one place. It's exciting to get the feedback from the patients when they say to me, "Wow, I feel great.'"