Claire Barker joined the UVM Medical Center’s Sleep Program in 2012. She is a registered polysomnographic technologist and a clinical sleep educator, certified in clinical sleep management. Her job? To help people sleep in a healthy way. We asked her about her career path and learned that a career in sleep medicine is anything but a snooze.
How do patients work with you?
Generally, a patient’s first interaction is with a sleep specialist, so a physician. Once the doctor diagnoses them and prescribes treatment, I help them manage that treatment. Because sleep affects our whole life – and it’s usually a lifelong thing – I help make sure that treatment fits into their lifestyle.
One of the most common things I help with is when a patient is prescribed CPAP to treat sleep apnea. It involves wearing a mask that blows air when you go to sleep. Getting that mask to fit properly so that it’s comfortable and conducive to sleep for you is important and that is something with which I help people.
How did you get into the field of sleep medicine?
My dad was a sleep technologist and a respiratory therapist. As I grew up, I always went into the sleep lab with him. I helped make educational videos, where I was the patient and he the technologist.
When I was in college, I wanted to be a professional classical musician. I learned rather quickly that that would not allow me the lifestyle that I wanted. The tipping point came when my orchestra director came to me asking for donations, instead of giving me money. I went crying to my father and said “Dad, what am I going to do? I’m never going to move out of your house.” He said “Take my job.” That sounded fun, and so I took it.
Something fateful happened on your first day. What was it?
On my first day, my dad introduced me to the gentleman with whom I would work. I kind of thought he was cute, and I was a little awkward around him. Fast-forward a couple years, and now that’s my husband.
What wisdom did your dad impart upon you?
My dad was trained in respiratory therapy. He got his start in sleep medicine just as the field itself was getting started. He also helped start some of the first sleep labs. My dad taught me all kinds of things about how conditions should be treated and managed, and how to relate to patients with serious and chronic conditions like COPD. That has shaped by approach to patient care up to today.
When did you have your a-ha moment that you were in the right career?
While I was growing up I’d see tracings of the data that my father collected, and he would quiz me. “Claire, what’s going on with this person? Can you tell from these squiggly lines?” After a while, I got familiar with it. But, the first night on the job, my dad put me in a room with a patient. I think I was 19 years old. It was an older patient in his tightie whities. My dad said casually, “Okay, set him up for his sleep study. Here’s the diagram of how and where all the sensors go. Good luck, figure it out.” And that was my introduction. Training by fire from my dad. That, of course, scared the bejesus out of me, because it made me really nervous. Then after, I got the hang of it and my dad assisted with a more formal education to get me registered in the field.
My first real patient where I was solo was a 15-year-old boy who was suffering with morbid obesity and diabetes, and was just not living his life to its full potential. I did his sleep study, and I got him on treatment. And then I saw a news program about him, about how he turned his life around and everything after he got treated. I said “Okay, this is what I’m doing. Yeah!”
You have a daughter now. Is she following in your footsteps?
Our daughter is six years old, and she is very much into the performing arts. Right now, she plays the ukelele and the keyboard. She’s interested in everything. What’s funny is that when I was six years old, I was in an educational video for my father’s lab, and now our daughter Hazel is in an educational sleep video for the UVM Medical Center.
What is your reflection on your career so far?
I’m a little more influential in the community than I would be if I was playing classical music. So I’m proud of that, I’m happy with it. I think Dad would be proud that I continue to educate the community of the importance of sleep health and have followed in his footsteps.