Sweet dreams

“We couldn’t consider it from a more favorable perspective.”

That’s how Kathy and Michael Cunningham describe their feelings about polysomnography (sleep study), now that their 5-year-old son, Elijah, has recently undergone the procedure at the  Boston Children’s Hospital Sleep Laboratories. The praise is even more compelling when you consider the source: Elijah’s dad is Michael J. Cunningham, MD, FACS, Boston Children’s otolaryngologist-in-chief.

In addition to talking in his sleep, Elijah had been waking repeatedly throughout the night—a potential symptom of what is called a “non-REM parasomnia” (sleep disruption that occurs outside of the deep, rapid-eye-movement stage of sleep), possibly related to obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS). After an initial examination, Cunningham’s colleague in Otolaryngology, Mark S. Volk, MD, DMD, FACS, referred Elijah to see Sanjeev Kothare, MD, interim medical director of Children’s Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders. Kothare agreed that Elijah’s sleep pattern was unusual, and recommended a sleep study to determine whether there was any underlying OSAS that would make a tonsillectomy necessary.

Michael Cunningham, MD, FACS

While his mother says Elijah was “totally fine” with the prospect of an overnight stay at Children’s Hospital Boston at Waltham—which houses one of the hospital’s two sleep laboratory facilities (the other is on the main campus in Boston)—the news conjured up a flood of unwelcome memories for his worried parents. Years earlier, Elijah’s older brother, Sam, had undergone a sleep study at another hospital—and it was a nightmare in every sense of the word.

Tucked into a dark, cramped corner, the laboratory space was “scary and traumatic,” recounts Mrs. Cunningham. “It was not a place designed for children whatsoever.” Her husband adds, “I would have been scared to go to the bathroom alone there. I couldn’t have left Sam’s side all night, even if I wanted to.”

Kothare promised the family that, by contrast, Boston Children’s Sleep Laboratories provide a soothing, comfortable and thoroughly child-friendly atmosphere. The Cunninghams soon began to feel reassured. “We were interviewed beforehand by a nurse who was so polite and professional,” says Mrs. Cunningham. “You could immediately tell that this was a place where everyone is used to dealing with children and cares about families.”

On the night of the study, Dr. Cunningham accompanied Elijah (Boston Children’s sleep labs provide a bedside cot for one parent to spend the night). Right away, he noticed a marked departure from his upsetting experience with Sam. “The facility at Waltham is a very inviting place,” Cunningham says. “Even at night, the hospital corridors are bright—they don’t feel ‘abandoned,’ even with few people around. It’s a cheerful, pleasant environment.”

Father and son were greeted by a sleep technician who welcomed Elijah and carefully explained each step of the process. First, Elijah needed to be outfitted with several painless gadgets to measure his brain waves, heart rate, eye and limb movements, muscle activity and airflow. He was able to sit down and enjoy a movie while the sensors were applied to his head and body. “Elijah wasn’t afraid at all,” his dad recalls, laughing. “In fact, he wanted us to take a picture of him wearing all the electrodes!”

Once Elijah and his father were shown their room—featuring colorful walls as well as games and movies—they found it easy to relax and settle in for the night. “It felt much more like a nice hotel room than a lab,” says Cunningham. Although Elijah had a few teary moments (he was missing his mom), he eventually fell into a comfortable sleep and his physiological measurements were monitored.

The next morning, Elijah and his father left the laboratory—the former feeling refreshed and energetic as ever, and the latter feeling relieved … and impressed.

“The professionalism of all of the nurses, the techs, everyone—it really struck me,” says Cunningham. “They were just terrific with Elijah. And I never let on that I was a Boston Children’s physician. They had no idea. They treated me just like any father, and my son like any patient, and they were fantastic to both of us.”

The study revealed that Elijah did not have an obstruction, and he hasn’t had to have his tonsils removed—good news for him and his parents. The experience has also had a different kind of impact on his father.

“Stepping aside as a parent and speaking solely as a clinician, I now feel very comfortable recommending sleep studies for the children I treat who have possible obstructive symptoms,” he says. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but the awful ordeal with Sam jaded my personal opinion about what a sleep study is like for a child, and for a family. Witnessing a sleep study at Children’s firsthand has really ‘reset my clock,’ if you will.”

Take a tour of the Boston Children’s Sleep Laboratory.

For more information, call 781-216-2570 or visit www.childrenshospital.org/sleeplab