Days only go as well as your sleep

LAWRENCEVILLE - Sleep and I are not the best of friends. We used to be - when I was a kid - but I can't remember the last restful night I had.

Like many shift-working professionals - in addition to lawyers, doctors, truckers and public safety personnel - sleep does not come easy for me. My career path may be a culprit. Before coming to the Gwinnett Daily Post, I was a fireman in a big city department up yonder. Being the rookie who wanted to impress my crew, I stayed up for most of the 24-hour tours, waiting for the big one. The thing impressed were pillow creases on my face from sleeping for 12 hours the following day.

Here, I work the 2:30 to 10:30 p.m. cops and courts beat, another odd shift that isn't conducive to sleep. When I hit the door, there's always a story to chase. When I go home, I'm not tired. I end up staying up way too late watching reruns of "The First 48" or shutting down a bar in the Virginia-Highlands with my buddies. I don't sleep in, either. From dawn until I return to the newsroom, I'm at the gym, freelancing or running errands.

I love my life - going, going, going - but I know I'm paying a price my body will ultimately have to reckon with. Some days I'm dog tired, barely able to stay awake. Terry Beck, who recently evaluated me at Gwinnett Medical Center's Center for Sleep Disorders, laid down the law on the subject.

"Your day is only going to go as well as your sleep goes," he said as he hooked me up to various electrodes and leads before putting me to bed at the clinic. "I hear you get two billion heartbeats in your life. When you sleep bad, your oxygen level goes down and your heart rate goes up. Those two billion heartbeats are going to spread out over 88, 90, 92 years and if you don't treat it, you're just trimming years off your life."

Listening to the tape of our conversation, I noticed all I could say in response was an awe-inspried "wow." That's still my reaction.

After a few calibration tests, it was lights-out. All the ingredients to immediately fall asleep were present: dark room, a cool temperature and minimal noise. Still, it took me more than an hour to nod off. I recall tossing and turning a bit. I finally managed to settle in, falling asleep to thoughts of the upcoming college football season.

At 6 a.m., Beck gave the most friendly wake-up call imaginable.

"OK, Alex. It's 6 a.m.," he said after lightly tapping on my door. "The study is over. Feel free to take a shower and get ready for the day."

Curious about my results, I groggily asked what he had witnessed over the last eight hours. I held my breath. Was it apnea, soul-smashing snoring, restless leg syndrome or worse, an unknown health condition lurking within?

With an easy smile, Beck said I slept mildly for about six-and-a-half hours with little incident.

"You did good, man," he said, shaking my hand. "Be thankful."