Image: Michelle Caron-Pawlowsky
The Graveyard Shift is a series chronicling how professionals with some of the strangest hours get their rest.
Amy Pacilio Sadilek works the emergency room in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a town with a population of about 30,000, where she helps some of the most critical patients who come through the hospital while working a shift to 3 AM or later. She chatted with Motherboard about what she sees in the emergency room after dark, and how she gets to sleep.
MOTHERBOARD: How long have you been working the night shift?
Sadilek: I am an emergency room nurse. I have been a nurse for six years and I have worked that night shift intermittently throughout the six years. I do a swing shift, so sometimes I work full nights and I did that for about two years during the past six years, but most of the time I work from 3 PM to 3 AM, or 1 PM to 1 AM, some of those weird middle hours. I do three twelve [hour] shifts a week and it’s every other weekend.
How has this affected your sleep schedule?
I used to be great at falling asleep wherever I was. I have always been good at sleeping. Working nights and odd hours, my body has a lot of trouble figuring out when bedtime is. If I work a slightly earlier shift, say I get off at 11 or 1, I don’t know how to go to sleep yet because my body is used to staying up until 4.
The craziest thing is that night shift people often don’t sleep
It’s a challenge, it has made me definitely more of a late morning sleeper. I have room darkening curtains and I don’t schedule appointments before 10 AM. But yeah, I always say I sleep like a college student, bits and pieces here and there. It’s a little easier for me because I don’t have kids, so I don’t have someone I have to get up for in three hours like a lot of my coworkers do. I’m lucky that when I’m working nights I don’t have other people to account for, so that’s good.
What sleep habits do you have to make sure you fall asleep?
I have an eye mask. If I’m really struggling I take a melatonin but I don’t take them all the time. I try to shut off all my electronics and make sure I shut the door to my room so my house is as quiet as possible. I cover up the light on my alarm clock so I don’t wake up and see the numbers. They say blue light keeps you awake, so I try to get rid of all sources of light. I put my phone on silent.
Are those methods pretty standard? What are some strange or interesting sleep methods you’ve heard other nurses do?
The craziest thing is that night shift people often don’t sleep. If you participate in daytime activities you have to be awake in the daytime. So they’ll get off their shift at 7 AM, have an hour of sleep or no sleep and then go about an entire full day and go about their night. The craziest thing to me is that they’ll be up for 36 hours sometimes.
Since you started working this shift has it affected your relationships in any way?
Absolutely. A lot of my friends work similar shifts to me because we are all nurses, but again I probably have more nursing friends than other friends because of our shift. Those are the people I can meet up with on a Wednesday because it’s the weekend and I don’t have to get up at 7 AM. I’m sure it’s affected my ability to form relationships with normal working professionals. With my husband it’s a bit of a challenge because he does work a 7 AM job. It affects his sleep a lot because he will stay up to see me when I get off, or fall asleep on the couch, so he’s not getting great sleep. We don’t get to have dinner together every night so that is hard on the relationship, to not get to have a moment together every day.
Do you expect to continue to work this shift or would you like to go back to daytime?
I would prefer to be on a day shift, while I enjoy the people and the attitude at night it would be nice to go back to having functional daytime hours.
Do you have to adjust when you go on vacation? How does that work?
It usually involves one day of no sleep, and one day of a lot of sleep and crashing to eventually catch back up to normal day hours.
Do you find that working the night shift the things that you deal with are different than the day shift?
For sure, there are a lot more patients who are influenced by drugs or alcohol or injuries related to that. There are less patients at night but the patients who are there tend to be more sick. And people who don’t want to go to work the next day.
That really happens? People come in just looking for a doctor’s note?
Oh yeah, people will ask for a note for the next day or the day after if it’s after 11. If you’re nice to us we’re usually pretty generous.
You’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is Motherboard’s exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.