Ingram Barge works with Vanderbilt University Medical Center to help their pilots sleep better — and work more safely 

In the Wake

In the Wake

Sleep deprivation is an epidemic in this country, and research indicates its effects are surprisingly insidious. Lack of sleep causes obvious symptoms, like tiredness, and less obvious ones, like obesity.

For reasons we don't completely understand, lack of sleep appears to disrupt the brain signals controlling metabolism and weight.

And sleep deprivation is a public safety issue. For example, the pilots who steer gigantic barges on America's waterways work various shifts around the clock. A single moment of pilot fatigue and inattention could cause disaster.

That's why a unique partnership between Ingram Barge and Vanderbilt University Medical Center is so promising.

Nashville-based Ingram Barge is a major player on America's inland waterways. To help identify sleep deficit among its employees, the company asked its pilots with a body mass index of 40 or higher to undergo a sleep study at Vanderbilt's Sleep Center.

Of 16 pilots in the initial study, all tested positive for sleep apnea, a condition where the patient unknowingly stops breathing many times a night — destroying restful sleep and sometimes triggering ailments like high blood pressure.

Fortunately, sleep apnea can often be remedied with a CPAP device, a mask that delivers constant air pressure.

And while the process of being fitted for CPAP isn't always smooth — finding the right mask and settings can take some effort, and in the meantime the patient may feel worse — Vanderbilt and Ingram teamed to create an intensive program to support pilots with apnea. Patience Bridges, a Vanderbilt sleep program coordinator who's a CPAP patient herself, is their coach.

The CPAP device contains a modem to transmit precise data on how it's working (or failing to work). "It helps us troubleshoot for them," Bridges says. "We help figure out what piece of the puzzle is needed for them to find that comfort level." She jokingly calls that achievement "the happy place."

Because, as Bridges says, sleep apnea "isn't just a heavy people disease," screening has expanded, looking at a range of symptoms beyond weight, like snoring and hypertension, and successfully recruiting more pilots for treatment.

In addition to helping pilots sleep better, work safely and possibly lengthen their lives, the program helps them navigate the periodic physicals required to keep their pilot's licenses.

Overall, a pretty happy place.

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