By Mark LaFlamme
Staff Writer
Dr. Ralph Harder knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. Given the extent of his expertise and the apparatus that goes with it, he might even know if you’ve been bad or good.
Harder is the director of St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center’s Sleep Clinic. He is a man who understands more than anybody what happens to us in our most vulnerable hours. He has worked with narcoleptics – those poor souls who stumble into sleep in the middle of the day, without warning or preamble. He has counseled those who suffer with the so-called parasomnias – people who eat entire dinners or drive across town while in the grip of sleep.
A quiet and thoughtful man, I could not stump the good doctor with any sleep-related questions of my own. If it pertains to the weird place outside of consciousness, Dr. Harder knows it well.
Though Harder is known informally as The Sleep Doc, he is a little bit of everything. He is a specialist in critical care, internal medicine and pulmonary medicine. If you were to cast a real physician in the role of a sleep doctor, Harder would be a fine choice.
What brought you into the world of sleep study? Most sleep medicine specialists are also trained as lung specialists (pulmonologists). During my pulmonary medicine training, one of my mentors had an interest in sleep disorders. So I was exposed to this field well before sleep medicine was recognized as its own specialty.
How long has the St. Mary’s Sleep Disorder Center been around? We started as a simple sleep lab diagnosing sleep apnea in the fall of 1992. At the time there were only two other sleep labs in the state. In 1995 we became a full sleep center, only the second to receive this accreditation in Maine.
What do you find is the most common problem suffered by the average sleeper? This depends on the age of the sleeper. For adults it’s probably insomnia – difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep. Snoring may be the more common problem, but it’s usually the bed partner that suffers not the sleeper. Sleep apnea – abnormal breathing during sleep – is the most common disorder diagnosed in a sleep lab.
Is there a particular age group more susceptible to sleep problems? Sleep is a biological function that changes with age. For example, most teenagers, if allowed to self-select a going-to-bed and getting-up time would go to bed after midnight and get up late in the morning or early afternoon. This becomes a problem if as a teenager you have to be in class early in the morning at a time when your body is telling you it’s best to be asleep. For senior citizens, an early bedtime and early arising seems preferable. For teenagers, a high percentage of their sleep is deep sleep. Seniors, especially those in their 70s and 80s, get very little deep sleep.
How is your own sleep? Most doctors take night call, a kind of self-imposed sleep disorder if you’re waking up to answer the phone throughout the night. My wife says I snore. I’m blaming our golden retriever, Boomer.
Can you tell us something that most people don’t know about sleep? Except for regular viewers of Animal Planet, your readers may not know that when the bottlenose dolphin sleeps, only half its brain is asleep at a time. The dolphin must be conscious in order to breath air as it comes to the water surface. Since sleep is an unconscious state, dolphins must sleep with one brain hemisphere awake at all times. And I thought being on call was bad.
As a sleep specialist, does the movie “A Nightmare on Elm Street” give you the creeps? I’ve never seen the film, but one of my nightmares is being forced to watch “slasher” movies. Wes Craven, the director, does seem to be playing with the fascinating concept of “lucid dreaming.” A lucid dream is a dream in which the dreamer can manipulate dream content and experience.

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