by J. Thomas Dalby

Life science gets down to the nitty-gritty.

     Upon receiving my medical degree, I followed the path of science instead of joining my clinical peers in the downtown skyscrapers or neighborhood malls. Now when I see my former class mates driving their BMWs, I smile as I shift the ancient Toyota into 3rd gear. For, you see, I understand the other side of that port rait: the unforgiving hours, the unceasing complaints that arrive at the clinic for which there is little to prescribe but some salve or potion which, hopefully, will not impede nature’s reparations. The thin veil of success also covers personal horrors—of failed marriages or self prescriptions to keep the stress at bay. I am satisfied with my choice, for the most part.

     Science, for all its elevated status and awards, is nothing more than the exercise of simple curiosity—childhood’s greatest pleasure—which is all but extinguished by institutes of “higher” learning. I was tenacious enough to retain my marvel at nature and now, under the guise of the noble university, have overturned more seashells than most. The scribblings of my discoveries are now regularly published in the journals of our trade and are read by the few who share my singular interest—sleep. For the past eighteen years I have lived a nocturnal existence and have been in charge of the medical school’s sleep laboratory. This life-style has had its drawbacks, as few women were able to tolerate my inverted clock for very long. Over time, I developed a solitary existence which was shared for short periods with medical students and my pet hamster, Sandman, who keeps the same hours as I do and has an honored post in my university office.

     “Why?” was the question I longed to satisfy. Why do we sleep? It is not practical or economical. We waste a full third of our life in this parody of death. Indeed, more time is spent sleeping by homo sapiens than any other activity.  But why?

     When I first began to study sleep the field was only twenty years old and the science of sleep only second to death as the least popular subject in medicine. My specific achievement in the field has been to describe alterations in physiological functioning during a typical course of sleep. I received the Raymond E. Reese prize in physiology for the publication of my results. With prize in hand, I eventually mastered the art of  graceful begging from government and private agencies and, with my students, amassed a body of scientific work which led the field.  In a nutshell, my investigations showed that the restorative aspects of sleep were accomplished within two hours and the remaining six achieved little. Employing my early Darwinian training, I concluded that the extra hours  of our nocturnal arrest served as nature’s safety harness. Restrained by sleep, we were kept from bumping around in the dark cave and thereby doing ourselves harm. Of course, this need had been set aside in the light of industrial advance and remained a mere vestige of our biological heritage. As my scientific speculations were translated into the popular press it did not take long for their implications to be understood.

     I was greeted abruptly one evening by a tall and stately gentleman, meticulously dressed in a dark gray business suit. His face was drawn and fringed with a short silver beard. His stone-like countenance boomed a greeting.

     “Dr. Kersey, my name is Telford. Ron Telford. It is my misfortune to have acquired a slow-developing malignancy and I have come here for your assistance.”

     “I am sorry for your trouble, Mr. Telford, but there must be some mistake. I am not an oncologist but a sleep researcher.”

     “There is no mistake, Doctor. The newspapers carry reports of your work and I understand that you are pre-eminent in your specialty. My surgeons hold out no hope that my tumors can be contained. I will surely be dead within three years. You are my last hope.”

     “But how can I help you?” I asked as I offered him a chair.

     “By simple calculation I can add almost a year to my life with your assistance. I have read that you feel we need only two hours of sleep a night and I want you to remove the remaining six from my routine. I have still much to do with my life and your ability to bring me a short reprieve is all I ask.”

     While I had not recognized the man, as he shunned publicity, his name was legend in the business world. One of the west’s leading entrepreneurs  and industrial pioneers, his companies had built more than half of the highways, pipelines and railways from Texas to Alaska. The boldness of his request and my curiosity overcame my initial shock. Would it be possible to manipulate the natural sleep cycle so drastically? True, I occasionally assisted in the treatment of some difficult cases of narcolepsy and hypersomnia but would it be possible to break the biological bonds formed through the millennia?

     “While I sympathize with you, Mr. Telford, I do not believe that what you ask is feasible, and, being an experimental procedure, there is a lengthy ethics process which must authorize my proposed experimentation.”

     “I am unable to wait while the weak and feeble characters of this university huddle with their lawyers to deprive me of my life. I am seeking someone with a little courage to help me. Now!”

     As I arose to make my apologies he stood and entreated me to listen.

     “I perceive by your worn cuff, and the work you have chosen, that my attempts to offer you personal wealth would be time wasted. Instead, I am going to appeal to the true scientist in you—for surely, that is what you are. Would you like to do something which has NEVER been done before? To be the first to push back the limitations of these feeble bodies? You can assist me with your knowledge—I will be responsible for all interventions—there will be no records to implicate you, should failure greet us. All I ask is that we begin immediately.”

     My mind was agitated. I would NEVER get this chance again. I finally agreed to meet with him the following day with my decision, but even this acquiescence led me in a direction away from the safe and careful methods to which I had become accustomed. I knew that it was theoretically possible to systematically reduce dependence on sleep, but this was just conjecture—a guess. Now I had the opportunity to affront nature—to test her, not simply whisper questions in her ear.

     Three case studies exist of individuals who naturally subsisted on less than two hours of sleep per day, so I  knew a reduction of sleep could be done. But how much? And how fast? I calculated a schedule which gradually introduced stimulants to wean Mr. Telford down to two hours of sleep per evening over the next six weeks. The choice of stimulant was troubling—the natural elements such as caffeine had too many liabilities for our purpose, so I selected methylphenidate hydrochloride, a very short-acting agent with few side-effects.

     Mr. Telford’s granite visage brightened when I told him of my decision to treat him as a clinical patient who had come to me complaining of hypersomnolence. He was to check in with me every evening and would be required to have his physiological functions closely monitored. The first week passed relatively uneventfully, with my patient arriving promptly and enthusiastically following the regimen. His age was some concern, for at seventy-two the robustness of his constitution was not assured.

     By the end of the second week some unanticipated transformations erupted in Mr. Telford. He acted suspicious of me and reported tactile hallucinations—that bugs were crawling under his skin. I decided that our equipment had failed and feared for his health. I instructed him to cease his medication and he spent the night in the lab under observation. On the next night he failed to show for our follow-up session. Fearing the worst, I telephoned the number that he had left. An automated voice told me that the number I had dialed was no longer in service. I struggled with my actions and whether I should report my abuse. I telephoned the hospital emergency centers on an hourly basis. Telford was not to be found. Had my meddling killed a man? Why had I agreed to such stupidity? The corporate offices which Telford operated gave me no access to him or even information on his whereabouts. As the weeks went by, I lost interest in my work and became confident that I had contributed nothing of value in my career. Three months following our last encounter, I glanced up from my desk to see Mr. Telford standing in the doorway sporting a broad grin. I leapt to my feet, staring in amazement at my patient.

     “Heavens, where have you been, Telford?”

     “Many apologies, good doctor. Your care for me prevented you from risking my health for mere adventure. But the journey has ended and I come to report on my, and your, success. You are looking at a man who has not slept for one solitary moment in the last six weeks! That exceeds what any man has accomplished. Your theories were partly right. There is no fundamental need to sleep. It is a state to be conquered and with your help I have. Once the grasp of sleep has released you there is no need for artificial stimulants. One simply lives without eight hours of death every day. Doctor, this is the single most important achievement in the history of medicine!”

     The experiment reached its conclusion when Telford died on schedule three years later. Even with the increased pain of his condition he clung to every moment of his life. He continued to build, to create with a vigor that amazed those who knew of his limited time. With him went the secret, and my further need for pajamas.

     I can never release the information that I have in confidence shared with you. Like many scientific advances, there is too much potential for abuse. The change for a society which abandons sleep, well, is too much for me to contemplate, much less be responsible for, but I know that you will not reveal my discovery. Will you?