I Spoke Too Soon

“Long hospital shifts, lack of sleep can kill, study says.”

“Working more than 24 hours is hazardous,” says sleep researcher, Charles Czeisler at the Harvard Medical School.

A study out today: “Residents who work five or more shifts that last 24 hours each, risk falling asleep during surgery, nodding off while talking to or examining the patient, dozing during medical lectures or patient rounds.”

If you suddenly take a loved one to the Emergency Room, can you be assured that he or she will get the best care? After all, it is a top hospital! Yet when you meet the person who will be making decisions about your Mom or your wife, that person may be yawning! Too tired to concentrate on this problem! How do you feel? FRIGHTENED! You realize that the patient is now AT RISK!

Here are some interesting historical notes on this subject, including a letter I wrote to Ann Landers in 1991 on this subject:

Dear Ann Landers,

Thank you very much for your column of January 10 on the long hours of medical residents and its effect on their patients.

I have long been concerned about this problem. I have watched family members experiencing grueling years of their residencies, and listened to their hospital stories. I went from “concerned” to “appalled.”

So in 1984 I contacted newscaster Paul Harvey. I thought that he could reach many listeners and that he could describe the problem eloquently. He thought it was important enough for 3 separate Saturday broadcasts. One was called “Medical training may be hazardous to your health!”

Since our daughter and two sons-in-law have completed their residencies (a neurologist, a surgeon, and a doctor of osteopathy), it’s too late to help them in their training. However, I’m hoping that soon there will be legislation limiting hours of residence and improving the situation for future doctors and their patients.

When I read your excellent column, I phoned Paul Harvey. I was pleased when a couple of hours later I heard him ask his listeners to “Send today’s Ann Landers column to your Congressman.”

You and Paul Harvey may have helped pave the way for changes which could benefit all of us. I hope you will follow with additional columns on this important national health problem, the overworked medical resident and the patients in danger.

– Natalie Seliber, Chicago, IL

The overworked medical resident and the patients at risk still concern all of us. Please let us know how you feel we can best limit hours of medical residents and interns–and make sure those limits are honored. Write to [email protected] Attn: Natalie

Note: In upcoming Sleep and Health editions, we will keep you posted on what is being done throughout the country on this important question.