The Sleep Specialist in the Prevention of Highway Fatalities

Elemer K. Zsigmond, M.D., DSc FCP

It is a well-known fact that some highway fatalities, especially when a number of vehicles are involved, are caused by the loss of control of one vehicle. This results in a chain reaction and may lead to multiple fatalities. This fact is only vaguely recalled, until it hits home.

As an anesthesiologist with three decades of experience, I always considered alertness a prime requisite for good performance. The official emblem of the American Society of Anesthesiologists has an inscription: Vigilance! I have remained vigilant and very alert throughout my professional career despite very long hours in the operating room. My longest case took 32 hours! Even if I was awake all night with an emergency case, the next day I felt no sleepiness, since the administration of the anesthesia is stressful in many instances. Therefore, it was shocking to me that, after a head injury, I started to fall asleep, unexpectedly and without much warning, at airports, while I was anxiously waiting to get home in time or change planes, or on the expressway in the middle of heavy traffic.

I just could not admit to myself that I might have narcoleptic episodes. After the second auto accident resulting from such a sudden sleep episode, I went to see a neurologist who looked at my skull X-ray and MRI and was not sure if I had suffered some brain damage as the result of the accident, which could have lead to narcoleptic episodes. Another neurologist, however, recently suggested that I should see a qualified sleep specialist, Dr. Alexander Golbin.

After the appropriate night sleep study and daytime sleep studies, Dr. Golbin diagnosed my condition as narcolepsy. He saved not only me from a traffic fatality but also the innocent victims who might have been involved. He prescribed Provigil, which controls these episodes, so that I can safely drive my car again. What a great relief! I will now even dare to go back to my specialty: anesthesiology practice. The anesthesiologist must remain awake, while the patient is sleeping, that is a golden rule that everyone appreciates.

Before I went to see Dr. Golbin, I was incapacitated to a great extent. I did not dare to tell even my wife that I was insecure sitting in the car, particularly driving long distances. When she asked me to drive her from Sarasota, from her condominium, back to Chicago, our permanent home, I just panicked. Certainly, without the diagnosis of Dr. Golbin and Provigil therapy, I would not have been able to drive her through a 1,200-mile trip. Fortunately, the Provigil therapy helped me to accomplish this task, which seemed insurmountable only a few weeks before the trip.

Sleep specialists play a vital role in modern medical practice and are indispensable in public health, in the prevention of highway accidents and fatalities. The courts are increasingly recognizing the essential role of these experts in medical litigations and injury cases.

Elemer K. Zsigmond, M.D., DSc FCP
Professor Emeritus of Anesthesiology
Medical Director for NIPF UICH Project

University of Illinois Medical Center.