When Jessica Toney texts her boyfriend during her "lunch break," he's often going to sleep.
Toney, a UNC senior who works midnight shifts in a lab at the UNC Medical Center every other weekend, has her routine down to a science. After a full day of classes, she eats a large bowl of pasta and takes a nap for five hours before heading into work.
“I'm suddenly left alone in the world,” she said. “Everyone's asleep or getting back from their parties and I'm still going strong at work — sometimes I just post to my Snapchat story just to feel like I'm not alone, even though I know none of them will see it until the morning.”
The streets are often empty for Pete McEwen, too, as he returns home from his 4 a.m. shift with the Chapel Hill Police Department.
“I go home before the sun comes up,” McEwen, an officer whose 12-hour shift begins in the afternoon, said. “And when you don’t see a single person walking around or out doing something it makes everything a lot harder.”
McEwen said he considers himself one of the odd ones in the department, preferring nighttime shifts to daylight alternatives. With a 2-year-old daughter and a wife that works from home, he said the schedule allows more time with his family.
Nighttime shifts also allow him to pursue his favorite police cases: DWIs.
“When there's people there and it's busy, you don't notice the time — you're taking calls and doing things and the next thing you know it's 4 a.m. and it’s time to go home,” McEwen said.
But slow nights can be more difficult, he said.
"We ride together with someone else just to stay awake and make sure we're doing the right thing because when there's no one else on the roads it's easy to just try and watch the time pass by," he said.
Toney and McEwen aren't alone in altering their internal body clocks for night shifts in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
Dr. Bradley Vaughn, a professor of neurology at the UNC School of Medicine, explained strange sleep patterns can have long-lasting effects on attentiveness and organ function. Breaking the natural cycle of hours awake and asleep leave individuals more likely to incur health risks such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, he said.
In his four years working nights, McEwen said he has noticed a good bit of weight gain from eating fast food from gas stations late at night. And while police officers get gym memberships to O2 Fitness in Chapel Hill, McEwen can’t use it nearly as much as he would like since fitness classes aren’t offered during his middle-of-the-night “lunch break.”
“You really notice the lack of sleep when you get a couple of days off and get to catch up on sleep, you just feel so much better,” McEwen said. “You forget what being rested feels like.”
At the Chapel Hill Fire Department, the crews on the fire trucks work 24-hour shifts from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. the following morning. For the crew, there is no “typical day,” said Lt. Ryan Warner — between training, paperwork and calls throughout the night, it is rare to get uninterrupted sleep.
Warner said he loves the fast-paced and unexpected nature of running calls, but the hours put stress on his home life. He only gets to see his wife and 3-year-old son a few days a week while he’s on shift — and he said trying to find the balance between work life and home life is rough.
“As my son starts getting older, playing sports or whatever, I'm not going to be there to get to see him all the time,” Warner said. “... Depending on what day it falls on our calendar, we could be working Christmas, their birthday, and you might miss those days. There's a lot of give and take.”
UNC sophomore Sam Meroney works as a volunteer EMT with the South Orange Rescue Squad in Carrboro. For him, the challenge lies not in seeing his family but in fitting a 12-hour overnight shift in with his busy class schedule, homework and a college social life.
“I do have a couple of times where I have to work from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and then I get up and still make it to my 8 a.m. class the next morning — it sucks, but it's doable,” he said. “You get to that point where you're so tired that you actually have energy.”
For Toney, who said she's not a night owl, the adjustment is difficult. But under the fluorescent lights of the hospital, Toney and the rest of the night staff keep pretending it is daylight, doing what they can to get through the exhaustion.
“We order food from delivery for lunchtimes and get pizza or Jimmy John's delivered in the middle of the night and there’s a lot of coffee,” she said. “But honestly for a lot of the people who work midnight shifts full-time it’s really normal. They go home and take their children to school and hop in bed, it's almost kind of weird how it's not different.”
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