Dr. Melissa C. Lipford is a neurologist and sleep medicine consultant at Mayo Clinic. She is also on the World Sleep Day Committee. Dr. Lipford has been on staff at Mayo Clinic since 2012, spending most of her time in the Center for Sleep Medicine.
ASK AN EXPERT
“I wish the general public knew that the vast majority of sleep problems are treatable,” Lipford states. “I can’t tell you how often I see patients who have struggled for years with poor sleep and low daytime energy levels. My female patients, especially, are so busy in their professional activities, caring for their families or serving as a caregiver for an elder parent or ill spouse that they wait until symptoms have become severe before taking the time to care for themselves.”
Lipford also points out that for women, worsening of sleep in the perimenopausal period is common. “There are many measures which can improve sleep during this phase in our lives, such as treating hot flashes and screening for and treating sleep apnea. Insomnia and restless legs syndrome are also common in women, but these problems are not always asked about during a general physical. These are very treatable disorders, and taking action can result in huge improvements in quality of life,” Lipford concludes.
THE PATH TO SLEEP
Lipford wasn’t always a sleep expert. In fact, her career path had a very different beginning. Though she had interest in becoming a doctor, she graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis. Lipford explains, “I moved to Kansas City and worked for several years as a software developer for a large company that creates electronic medical record systems for health care organizations. Later, I transitioned to a medical device development firm.”
“While I enjoyed my work, I found myself wanting to be on the other side—using technology to directly care for patients.” At that point, Lipford’s husband, Brian, had graduated from law school after deciding to leave his career as a newspaper editor. “Seeing his hard work translate into satisfying career opportunities was inspiring,” Lipford recalls.
After a lot of consideration, Lipford decided to pursue medical school. “I enrolled in evening classes to complete the prerequisite courses for medical school and took the entrance examinations,” she explains. She was accepted to the University of Kansas School of Medicine, where she approached medical school as a job. “I would show up to the library at 6 a.m. and study, go to my classes, and then go back to the library to study until 6 p.m.,” she says of her medical school experience. It didn’t take long to realize it was the right path for her.
During medical school, Lipford fell in love with neurology. Within her neurology training, she had the opportunity to spend time working in a sleep clinic. Within a few weeks of learning about the relationship between sleep and various aspects of health, she was able to narrow down her career path further.
WORKING AT MAYO CLINIC
“When I matched at Mayo Clinic, I knew I had to take the amazing opportunity,” Lipford says. “Brian agreed to close his law practice and is now a supervising attorney with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services.” They had their first child shortly after Lipford started her neurology residency at Mayo Clinic and their second after she joined on as staff. “I feel incredibly fortunate to be at an institution that is very supportive of families,” Lipford shares. Their children, Malcolm, 9, and Alexander, 5, understand that sleep needs to be a priority in their household.
Because the field of sleep medicine is relatively new, there are many unanswered questions that translate into research possibilities. Today, Lipford is able to use her engineering background toward researching new technologies to help patients with sleep and neurologic disorders.
Gina Dewink is a communications specialist and writer devoted to spreading awareness about the importance of sleep.