After 40 years of helping people sleep, this physician is ready to relax, reflect

A 40-year career in sleep is wrapping up, but sweet dreams are in store for this sleep specialist

When a young pulmonology resident stumbled upon an article about sleep apnea, he could not have predicted how it would affect his life.

What a difference 40 years makes.

“Right after I read that article, I saw a patient who was very heavy. He had a thick neck and edema,” said David H. Winslow Jr., M.D., sleep medicine physician with Norton Pulmonary Specialists and Norton Sleep Centers. “Classic signs of right-sided heart failure — I put a nasal trumpet in, and the patient felt better. That case piqued my interest.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

This year Dr. Winslow is retiring and will be succeeded as medical director of Norton Sleep Centers by Kevin K. Trice, sleep medicine physician with Norton Pulmonary Specialists and Norton Sleep Centers.

Dr. Winslow’s four-decade career started at what we might think of as the dawn of modern sleep medicine.

Starting with the heart

“I started practicing pulmonology in South Louisville. I would see referred patients who were supposed to have severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” Dr. Winslow said. “Their breathing function would be OK, but they’re telling me they snore at night. They don’t wake up rested.”

Puzzle pieces began to fall into place: the article he’d read, the first patient he treated for an airway blockage and these new patients.

When Dr. Winslow’s practice group moved to what is now Norton Audubon Hospital in the late 1970s, the closest sleep clinic was in Miami, Florida.

“We started sending patients to Florida for a while, but it was pretty far away for most of them. In 1979, I went to a very small conference of people who were interested in these symptoms and what they meant for sleep and health.”

That conference was full of the forefathers of sleep medicine. That’s about the time the first sleep disorders clinic in Louisville opened on what is now Norton Audubon Hospital campus. In 1983, Dr. Winslow became medical director of what would become Norton Sleep Centers.

“We were board certified and became the 30th sleep center in the United States,” he said.  

Waking up to a new way of treating sleep disorders

To say things have changed in 40 years would be like saying Rip van Winkle took a cat nap.

“The old polysomnography machines used ink pens,” Dr. Winslow said, noting the contrast to today’s modern electronics.

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A polysomnography machine monitors various data points during sleep: heart rate, breathing and so on. Pens would trace onto large sheets of thin paper — the “old-school” way. This analog method came with its own set of problems.

“We had to change the rugs out every year or so in the labs because the ink would go everywhere,” Dr. Winslow said.

Nowadays, polysomnography uses sophisticated computers, and data is collected, recorded, analyzed and shared electronically.

Computerized machinery is just the edge of sleep medicine’s changes since the early days. Today, not all patients have to spend the night in a laboratory, away from home, to do a sleep study. There are portable, lightweight machines patients can take home and use in the comfort of their own bedrooms. When patients do require an on-site sleep study, Norton Sleep Centers have four diagnostic lab locations in the Louisville area, with a total of 24 sleep study beds available. 

“We understand so much more about sleep disorders, and not just sleep apnea,” Dr. Winslow said. “Narcolepsy, for example. Beyond sleep disorders, we know more about how the body responds to more sleep, less sleep and better sleep hygiene. We know more about how hormones and weight impact sleep.”

Even so, he said, “There’s still much more to learn and know about sleep.”

Decades of service that won’t stop with retirement

If you ask Dr. Winslow what he’s proud of in his career, he might mention the practical portion: the sleep studies and clinical trials, writing papers and presenting to symposiums. But he’s done more than that, in service to both the medical community as well as Louisville region.

“I feel fortunate to have been part of two fields from the early days,” Dr. Winslow said. “Pulmonary and sleep [medicine] were both just getting started when I joined.”

He also served as head of Norton Audubon Hospital’s Ethics Committee, which in part oversaw palliative care.

“That was a great joy for me to participate in,” Dr. Winslow said.

As he reflected on his legacy and the expertise he has passed on to colleagues, Dr. Winslow expressed confidence in his successors who will treat patients in Louisville.

What’s next for this sleep specialist? He’s looking forward to spending time with family and volunteer work.

“My wife and I will spend winters in Florida. We love to walk and ride our bicycles,” Dr. Winslow said. “I haven’t decided exactly where else I’m headed, but I’m looking forward to growing spiritually and intellectually.”

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