The birth of Operation Sleep Community Katrina Relief.

 Humans tend to remember what they were doing when noted catastrophes occurred during their lives. For instance, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I remember being in Sister Mary Catherine’s geography class. I remember she was weeping as she announced that he had died, which spurred the whole class to start crying. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, I was rocking my newborn twin daughters to sleep in front of the television. On September 11, 2001, I was putting the finishing touches on A2Zzz Magazine for the Association of Polysomnographic Technologists (APT).

It is unlikely that I will ever forget the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. I was in Hyannis, Mass, to deliver a lecture at the New England Polysomnographic Society Annual Meeting. I had just finished participating in a panel discussion that addressed sleep disorders patient support groups and thought I’d make a few phone calls in an attempt to cross some things off my “to do” list. I wanted to home in on some details about the upcoming Louisiana Academy of Sleep Medicine (LASM) conference before I left Massachusetts, so I phoned one of the organizers, my friend Lori Speyrer from Respironics, who lives in Lafayette, La. I thought Lori sounded preoccupied, but didn’t think too much about it because she also has a challenging work travel schedule and I figured she was airport hopping as well.

The LASM annual meeting would be a milestone event for all that planned to attend. Although the first ever Polysomnographic Technology Licensure Law had already passed and been put into the state’s code books, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco was scheduled to come to the LASM meeting for an honorary signing ceremony. As I continued to chatter away with Lori on the phone, I noticed that she seemed even more preoccupied than she had been at the beginning of our call.

When a person travels frequently, it is sometimes difficult to keep up with current events. This was one of those times. Oblivious to the fact that there was a category four hurricane about to ravage the Gulf Coast, I asked Lori if she was okay. “Well, I’m just trying to get ready for this hurricane,” she said. My reply was, “What hurricane?”

Watching and worrying
From then on, I paid close attention as the events unfolded in the Gulf Coast. Television images of the destruction made me fear for friends and acquaintances in the area. Not knowing if they were safe created the impulse to find out and see what could be done to help. Lori and I stayed in touch as much as possible while the phones and e-mail were operational. Her home was far enough away from New Orleans and Katrina’s path, so we knew she would be safe. We were not sure how our other sleep community friends would fare, but knew so many that had evacuated with little more than the clothes on their backs. I called Karen Allen in Billings, Mont, and Melinda Trimble in Fayetteville, Ark, two other dear friends, to ask them to start gathering clothes and supplies to help our colleagues so that, when shipping was possible again, we would be ready.

Lori continued to send me status reports, even though we had to resort to cell phone text messaging once the power, e-mail, and phones stopped working. Where our friends were and how they were faring became the focus. Lori was able to locate some friends from New Orleans, Gay Matherne Bourgois and Cindy Mack, both sleep technologists, and Mark McCarthy, MD. All three were safe. Dr McCarthy and his family fled to Florida, and Gay was at the home of relatives in Baton Rouge, La—a tiny apartment housing 10 people. Cindy was living at the Premier Sleep Laboratory in Baton Rouge, and so were other displaced technicians. Some of the technicians living at Premier weren’t even employees there, but sought refuge and were welcomed with open arms.

Thanks to my mother’s tutelage, worrying is something I do very well. I kept thinking about all the other people potentially in danger, and especially our people. Were they dry? Did they have water and food? I made a Red Cross donation online, but felt more could be done, and it seemed so impersonal. Eventually, I was able to get through to Gay and Cindy myself by text messaging. Cindy and I also spoke briefly. This conversation was the impetus for the events that transpired over the next few days.

A shelter from the storm
Technicians and one physician came to the Premier Sleep Lab for refuge. Some came and went, some stayed. At one point there were eight people, three dogs, one cockatiel, and a cat. Cindy told me that one of her co-workers went straight to Texas to stay at the home of her brother when she evacuated her destroyed home in New Orleans. She is a single mother of two children, and they lost everything. She went to a noted relief agency for assistance and was told that she would not receive any aid because she was technically employed and “had a roof over her head.” This single statement caused an indescribable pain in the pit of my stomach. How many of the dollars that we were all donating to major relief organizations would actually reach our people in the form of basic necessities? Yes, lucky to be alive, this woman had two children, the clothes on their backs, a job in another state, and a place to stay in her brother’s tiny dwelling. But this was not enough. The response she received from this agency was unacceptable in my opinion, and I knew others would agree.

If the rest of the sleep community had a way to connect to our displaced colleagues to directly lend a hand, I knew they would. Being a communications aficionado, my group e-mail list in the “sleep world” is quite healthy. The first e-mail went out as a call to action, and action was certainly what happened. In a period of one weekend, 3,000 e-mails came in from sleep community colleagues all offering help in one form or another. Thus, Operation Sleep Community Katrina Relief (OSCKR) was born.

Within minutes of the first e-mail going out, my dear friend Claude Albertario from Minneola, NY, contacted me. He said that there was no way I would be able to handle the volume of inquiries alone, so he offered to create a secure members-only Web site to serve as a clearinghouse at Claude worked tirelessly for weeks screening those that became members of the site and verifying identities. This served as a safety measure since addresses of the displaced sleep people were listed in the members’ area.

The forum Claude was kind enough to facilitate served as a valuable resource for both victims of Hurricane Katrina and people looking to help. Through it, individuals wishing to send care packages had some idea of what items were still needed. From this, a tremendous outpouring of job offers, relocation assistance, housing offers, frequent flyer mile donations, and a host of other ways to help displaced sleep community members transpired. It only proved that sleep professionals rise to the occasion to take care of their own. (See excerpts from the Web site forum on page 14.)

Laughter and tears of Joy
As the word spread throughout our community, packages started arriving one after the other. “The sleep folks really made the difference for our survival. We received many packages—from sleep techs, Pro-Tech, Braebon, Grass-Telefactor—so many people to thank. Every time a package arrives, I just start crying,” Gay said. “My lab was full of water, so we lost everything. I lost all my sleep books. Dr Meir Kryger and his publisher sent a box of books to me that I loved and lost. I don’t know how we will ever be able to thank everyone.”

For Cindy Mack, the care packages were a godsend. “We were in shock. All we did at the Premier Lab was watch news on TV and cry all the time. We cried for 3 days,” she said. “The boxes that came in—well, this was like Christmas. There were spontaneous eruptions of laughter, crying, then, more laughter. Carolyn Campo’s entire garden club in Illinois sent us things we couldn’t even buy in the stores in Baton Rouge.”

Some people sent major retail store gift cards to the groups in Baton Rouge. Others just used common sense and sent basic needs like undergarments and hygiene products, as well as other clothes and food. Andrew Korbel, a sleep technologist from Austin, Tex, and administrator of the popular sleep Web site at, took pledges online, bought supplies, and drove them to Baton Rouge for Gay, Cindy, and others.

Expanding the Mission
When the sleep community answered the call to help our displaced colleagues, so many people wanted to make a difference that there were more people to assist than there were victims to help, or at least victims identified by OSCKR. This led to a search by OSCKR volunteers to find Gulf Coast victims related to the sleep community, determine if they were safe or not, and try to help get them what they needed.

Based on a suggestion by Marietta Bellamy Bibbs, a longtime sleep technologist and Board of Registered Polysomnographic Technologists (BRPT) member, we matched zip codes impacted by Katrina against the certificant list on the Web site of the BRPT, and then volunteers, such as Brendan Duffy, worked diligently to contact the people on this list and determine if they were safe. Whereabouts of many are still unknown, but some still continue to contact OSCKR with status reports.

It remains to be seen how many sleep laboratories will be unable to reopen—such is the sad fate of many New Orleans sleep centers—but some in the Gulf Coast have been found to be operational with minimal damage. Within hours of Katrina’s devastation, the American Sleep Medicine Foundation (ASMF) established a Hurricane Disaster Relief fund that will offer assistance to members of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), as well as the patients who receive treatment at affected centers. The ASMF recognized the critical need that affected centers be able to reopen in order to address the sleep needs of their communities.

Because the APT Board of Directors realizes that victims will need help for an extended period of time, it is looking at long-term solutions. There are a lot of different options, including joining efforts with the physician groups and providing educational and employment assistance.

Life Goes On
Cindy and her staff have been performing sleep studies in the wake of Katrina. Gay, not having a sleep laboratory to go back to, is now working at Cindy’s lab as well. “Life goes on,” Cindy said. Sad about not being in her beloved New Orleans, but deciding it is time to start a home somewhere else, Gay is moving to Lafayette, La. Cindy and her husband are rebuilding their home in New Orleans on their own, because she said there are no contractors to be had.

There has been one question that has been raised throughout the entire Katrina ordeal, beyond the Hurricane Rita damage, and up to this day: “The owners of that sleep lab in Baton Rouge must be very wonderful people to allow victims to live there this long.”

Cindy said that the owners of the Premier Sleep Laboratory, Joseph Bordelon, MD, Charisse Comeaux, Rodney Skirmich, Tim Miller, and Denise Sharon, MD, “never blinked an eye” at the thought of their lab being turned into a makeshift shelter.

“My bosses told me, ‘You stay there as long as you like. It’s your home as long as you need it,”’ she said.

 Claude Albertario

OSCKR Goes Online
Claude Albertario from Minneola, NY, contacted Theresa Shumard within minutes of her first e-mail request for help. He knew that she would not be able to field the thousands of responses she would get and offered an ingenious solution. Devoting his own time and resources, he set up a secure Web site to help coordinate the informal relief effort. Through the forum he set up at people could find out what was needed and make sure the right type of donations were getting to the right people. What follows is a sample of the online discussion:

“Friends of mine at the Center for Sleep Medicine in Orland Park, Ill, are sending several hundred dollars’ worth of food, clothes, and personal items to the [Premier] lab. They ordered everything online, so hopefully the mail will go through. They said the best they could do shipping wise was 3-5 business days, which probably means a little longer.”

—Debbie Guerrero, RPSGT, Illinois

“New England Polysomnographic Society (NEPS) is donating $1,000 to put together care packages. Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester, NH, is matching donations made to the Red Cross by staff.”

—Iain Boyle, NEPS President, Rochester, NH, and Alycia Grieco, NEPS Secretary, Maine

“I have some frequent flyer miles to donate and I will contact other sales reps to plead for help in this matter. I need a head count on how many are needed and will proceed with the ones who need it the most and descend from there.”

—Scott A. Cole, RPSGT, Director of Sales, Eastern Region, Pro-Tech Services Inc

“I don’t have many frequent flyer miles, but I will personally purchase an airline ticket for a tech that needs to fly someplace for work.”

—David Gregory, RPSGT, Florida

 Destruction led to outpouring of support.

“I can drive, up to and including moving trucks with U-Haul trailers attached, including backing the thing into tight spots. I have the time, and I can go to a place with a rented truck/trailer and move someone to a job. Or I can rent a truck/trailer and haul in non-perishable food or clothing…Due to my multiple sclerosis, I have some limits with stamina and hot conditions, but getting the stuff there is do-able…I have no clue if this is needed or not, but it’s what I can do.”

—Michael E. Adams, RPSGT

“There is a brand-new lab opening near Chattanooga, Tenn, that needs a whole staff of RPSGTs, for a new joint ventured lab.”

—Robert Lindsey, MS, RPSGT, Chattanooga, Tenn

“A position is opening at a sleep lab here in Billings, Mont, in the near future. My husband Jim and I talked about it, and we are able to accommodate a small family at our home. They’re welcome here in Billings. There’s a lot of construction going on and it seems like there are a lot of options in the medical field here. (The winters aren’t that bad.) Jim and I will help in the relocation to our area. If there is interest, please let us know via e-mail so that we can get things arranged.”

—Karen Y. Allen, CRT, RPSGT, Billings, Mont

Theresa Shumard is a longtime polysomnographic technician; the editor for A2Zzz Magazine, a membership publication of the Association of Polysomnographic Technologists (APT); a member of the APT Board of Directors; North American Manager of Sleep Strategic Planning for DeVilbiss, Sunrise Medical Inc; and an international lecturer on sleep-related topics. She is a member of the Sleep Review editorial advisory board.