To achieve excellence, be an inspiration to those around you while learning from those who inspire you.

The job posting was written on a 31¼2-by-11-inch index card stuck inside the employee notice section of the bulletin board. It read:

Sleep Technician Needed. Third Shift. Minimum Qualifications: High School Diploma, or equivalent; BCLS Certification. Apply Internally through Respiratory Care Department.

I met the criteria, I applied, and I was hired. Two weeks later, I was on an airplane to San Antonio, Tex, to receive my indoctrination into polysomnography—something I did not understand at all and was struggling to comprehend. What did this job really encompass? At $6.25 per hour, it beat minimum wage; and surely this “sleep thing” would catch on, I thought. That was 16 years ago.

The Earliest Mentors
The first thing I fell in love with was the vocabulary. Wow! This field had more multisyllabic words than a Dennis Miller monologue. During the lecture, I heard described all the apnea types and definitions, and the speaker became my first mentor. I wanted to sound as educated as he did on a subject I knew few understood. I wanted to absorb his knowledge, use “10-cent” words, and educate others, just like he was teaching me. I wanted to know what others did not.

Like every 20-year-old, I thought I knew a lot already, but that was before I took the job. There was a passion spoken in this language of the sleep professional and a desire to know “why.” I could learn not only from them, but also with them.

A year after taking my first job in sleep medicine, I moved and had to find a new position. When I called the hospital closest to my home and asked for the sleep laboratory, the operator transferred me. Well, that answered my first question; the hospital had a sleep-disorder center. I left a message. I had limited experience, but a heck of a vocabulary. The director of the department called me back after working hours. She asked a series of questions:

• How much experience did I have?
• Did I like working nights?
• Had I ever heard of restless legs syndrome (RLS)?

I dropped a quote from the original lecturer, my silent mentor: “You know, there is research indicating a very large population afflicted with RLS will test positive for periodic movement syndrome.” I had her at “hello.”

That phone interview changed my life. Her name was Mary Ann Green. She signed all her correspondence with the initials, “MAG.” She was the one asking all the urgent questions and looking for life on the other end of the phone. I wanted to know everything about her.

She invited me to attend the staff meeting and to meet the medical director. I got a face-to-face interview, and, when I hung up the phone, I knew that opportunity knocked. She sounded so mature and polished; and, because I wanted to be a professional, I believed I could learn from her.

While I was eager for a chance, she was eager for a competent staff. It was 1991, and she had little choice when choosing a “qualified applicant.” I had some initial training, and I knew where the electrodes were supposed to be placed. That made me qualified. Only a few weeks later did I find out that one is supposed to measure for electroencephalogram (EEG) placement. She was shocked I did not know how to complete the International 10/20. She handed me a manual and said there would be classes.

Attendance at the classes was, of course, mandatory. She never asked me if it was going to be convenient for me to attend. She did not care. She was setting the bar, and she was setting it high. She never had to say it, but her message was clear: “If I am going to invest in you, you will appreciate it, you will respect me, and you will learn everything I know, because I am going to teach it to you. And if I cannot, I will find someone who will. This department will be about education and opportunity, and I run this department. Got it?” Anyone who ever worked with her got “it,” and the “it” was perfection.

Classes started the following summer. She rounded up every department head, neurologist, pulmonologist, and EEG technician from every possible resource within 200 miles. The summer schedule was released, along with the summer syllabus. We were to meet every Saturday starting the first Saturday in June. The courses would start at 9 am, and adjourn at approximately 4 pm. There was no fee for her continuing education unit (CEU) program; however, it was not “paid training.” Only one person in the entire neurodiagnostic lab had the misfortune of asking the question, “Is this mandatory?”

The response was a raised left eyebrow; no comment needed. We met and had our “university” through the early fall. The weekly staff meetings were held at 5 pm. We were to have our Saturday homework ready to review by Wednesday. No excuses. Like a schoolmaster, she would collect it, grade it, and correct it with a red ink pen, complete with smiley faces for right answers and frowning faces with gigantic question marks for errors. It was a complete pain, but I have never learned so much. Within 2 years our department had six registered polysomnographic technologists and three registered EEG technologists. Gihan Kader, MD, our medical director, was then the president of the American Sleep Disorders Association (now the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, or AASM). She and Mary Ann created and ultimately inspired the technicians. It was about being the best! Those who could perform were expected to do so. Those who could not were told to keep trying and never to give up. I was never bored.

Lessons learned
Now, when I think of a mentor, Mary Ann was the epitome. Simple lessons were doled out daily to anyone smart enough to pay attention beyond the textbook or courses. She dressed like a million bucks. One could sense fashion did not come naturally; she would later tell me she hired someone to put together her wardrobe. The lesson I learned: Dress for success.

I also learned to never expect staff to perform duties you think you have risen above. Mary Ann went to the operating room for interoperative monitoring. She taught how, when, and why. She donned scrubs, measured heads (and reinstructed me 100 times on how to do the 10/20 better and faster), answered the phone, gave directions to the lab, and used the dictaphone to transcribe physician interpretations when the secretary called in sick. I even saw her use a plunger on a clogged sink! Lesson learned: Never expect more from anyone than you are willing to invest yourself. There is no such thing as “not my job.” If it needs to be done, do it; and everyone will look better.

I also learned never to misspell words under any circumstances. She would take documentation from the staff, copy it, and then have everyone correct it—whether it was for spelling or grammar—during the following staff meeting. “Please, do not let it be my handwriting,” I would often wish before each meeting. Lesson learned: If you want to be taken seriously, take yourself seriously first. If you do not care enough to get it right, no one will care who you are.

I also learned to answer the physician’s question, the patient’s question, the janitor’s question, and the CEO’s question with the same tone. The lesson: No one deserves more respect due to his or her title, position, or role. Everyone gets equal footing. This particular lesson came in handy when the last multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) nap ended at 6:45 pm and the first polysomnogram patient arrived at 7 pm. The medical director and the housekeeper would both stay late to help strip and make the beds. That is regard and respect exemplified. Teamwork and common goals were part of being the best, and no one was above any job.

Six years after the interview when I first met Mary Ann, I left the hospital to help establish an independent sleep center. I cried when I gave my notice. She knew I was going to take a more financially lucrative offer. She understood. She threw a going-away party during my last staff meeting. She told me to stay in touch. She was agitated with failed attempts to increase the salary ranges for registered techs, as she had already lost three of her handpicked and groomed technologists to better-paying labs. Lesson learned: Night techs have plenty of time to talk and share information. She told me to pursue public speaking and education, and added that I would be good in sales. She also told me that she was proud of me and that she wished me continued success. She meant every word of it. The lesson: Never waste words or time. Both are precious and have lasting power.

I took all these lessons with me as I pursued more opportunities. I worked in the independent facility and had the opportunity to go through AASM accreditation a second time. I worked directly with my manager and my medical director to achieve all the standards. It was a thrill to be a part of something from the ground up. I was the technician who performed the polysomnograms that would be reviewed by the site visitors. I used every bit of knowledge I had to impress them. I wanted to succeed; I was proud of what we had created.

However, it was through this accreditation site visit that I got the first tough lesson about different management styles. I found that not every manager wants their “underlings” to shine. When too much attention and praise were doled out regarding my technical and patient-care ability, the manager who could have taken credit for hiring me instead negated the compliments and changed the subject. Lesson: Some egos overshadow common goals.

It was not for personal praise that I performed at the highest level. It was because that was all I had ever been shown how to do. I continued to grow and learn through the record review and an increasing patient population that included people presenting with much more than just obstructive sleep apnea. We saw nocturnal seizure disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and REM sleep behavior disorder. I was right, this “sleep thing” was beginning to boom! I was scoring studies and working nights. I attended every Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS) meeting (once even sharing a hotel room with three others just so that we all could be there). I diligently watched for trends, and it was becoming apparent that independent sleep centers were the future of sleep testing. I was ready for more change. I needed new mentors and new challenges.

Opportunity knocks, Again
A former colleague had joined a small company called somniTech Inc. She called me one morning at 3 am while I was at the lab and told me how thrilling it was to be a part of something growing and how much the company could use someone like me. I told her I was ready. Two days passed, and then the owner of the company, Pam Gillis, called me. I liked her immediately. She asked a series of perfunctory questions:

• How much experience did I have?
• Could I help them with AASM accreditation?
• When could I come in for an interview?

This was suddenly familiar. However, she also dropped a lot of terms that were new to me, such as DME operations, full QI program, and Overland Park, Kan. I wanted to know more; I wanted to sound as polished and mature as she did. She could teach me.

I have been with somniTech Inc for more than 7 years now. Like every 29-year-old, I thought I knew everything when I took the job, but there was much more to learn. Along with discovering that DME stands for durable medical equipment, QI stands for quality improvement, and Overland Park is the suburban metro south area of Kansas City where somniTech is based, I gained a whole new vocabulary and skill set. I learned about contracting with hospitals and insurance carriers, patient compliance, and every level of sales from the basics to a master’s level.

In particular, Pam Gillis and Ken Skolaut, two of the most consummate sales professionals ever, taught me about following up and following through, along with sales gems such as, “Never lay anything on anyone’s desk, unless given permission” from Gillis, and “Don’t tell them everything you know, have a reason to go back,” from Skolaut.

Through it all, I also learned that anyone can be a mentor, for good and for bad (I’d never do it like that). All it takes is a person willing to share information and a person willing to receive it.

More than teaching
The word “mentoring” is thrown out frequently and usually in the wrong context. Often, a person says something like, “You know, Bill is a great tech. He just needs a little mentoring in the art of public speaking.” What the person really means is that Bill needs to be shown the right way to do something.

Mentoring is so much more than teaching. It is a vested interest in another’s success, and an eager pupil ready to take it all in. I have tried to groom and mentor many people. The only time it is successful is when the person is receptive to information. It is useless to try to groom or mentor a person for further success, management positions, or leadership roles if they do not want it. Then there are those, like myself, who watch others’ actions, and, if the actions are respected, duplicate them.

I realize that not every person has had the benefit of working with people that others respect and admire. Nor will everyone have had the fortunate experience of finding managers and mentors who are willing to share what they know. It truly starts at the top. If the culture of your organization is not conducive to opportunity and education, it will falter; and all the mentoring in the world will not lead its young technicians to the next level of success. Why would they want to grow in an organization that does not promote from within? Tell everyone what you know. Show the world daily that even the housekeeper is worthy of a “hello,” and the mentoring will develop naturally. Lead by example. It has worked for me, and it works for our organization. I have said to every entry-level technician while they were in training, “We never want you to leave somniTech Inc, but, if you do, we want your new employer to wonder where you learned so much.” It is a simple philosophy: Take care of the patient to the best of your ability, and everything else will work itself out, including mentoring.

Mentoring is really about sharing information. What good is information if only a few are enlightened? I am mentored every year during the APSS meeting. I learned from Michael Breus, PhD, that not only should you tell what you know, heck, you should show how to do it, too. I learned from Theresa Shumard that if you do not get involved, nothing changes. I learned from Shari Angel-Newman, RPSGT, that you should be the change you wish to see in your own department, and smile while you do it. I learned from William Dement, MD, PhD, and Richard Ferber, MD, and the list could go on and on. Would they ever know me? Probably not. However, I call them my mentors just the same. Show it, speak it, breathe it; and the “it” will become perfection.

Jennifer D. James, RPSGT, is director of sales and marketing for somniTech Inc, Overland Park, Kan. Mary Ann Green, her key mentor, passed away in the fall of 2005. “She lives in every technician she ever came in contact with. May she rest in peace with a red pen drawing nothing but smiling faces,” James says.