Open Accessibility Menu

The Science Behind Sleep: Dr. Eric Hernandez on His Passion for Sleep Medicine

Published in Sleep Medicine, Medical Professionals Author: Eric Hernandez,MD,PhD

How a family legacy and a neuroscience background shaped one physician’s mission to help patients understand the role sleep can have on their overall health.

Like many children growing up, Dr. Eric Hernandez always wanted to be like his father. As the son of a physician, Dr. Hernandez did follow in his father's footsteps and learned that it was more than the job title that guided him.

"Watching my dad in his role as a physician, my perception of what a physician was really changed over time," Dr. Hernandez explained. "Being a physician was about having a purpose. Sometimes you fail, sometimes you succeed but in the end, it’s the ability to do good for others and fill your life with meaning."

For Dr. Hernandez he found his sense of purpose in sleep medicine during a college neuroscience course at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

"I loved to explore new ideas and fields, so as a result, I decided to pursue two degrees," he said. "I wanted to not only treat patients but be able to find cures. Since I loved neuroscience of the brain, I pursued a PhD in neuroscience along with my medical degree."

When the time came for Dr. Hernandez to choose a residency and ultimately a specialty, neurology was a natural fit.

"I wasn't a surgeon at heart, and I knew that wasn't the right choice for me," Dr. Hernandez remembered. "Since I like to ponder the mysteries of the universe, I gravitated toward the brain and eventually sleep medicine."

According to Dr. Hernandez, one of his attractions to neurology and sleep medicine is the uniqueness of how they diagnose their patients. Traditionally, medical doctors are trained to find symptoms and variations that could be causing ailments. On the flip side, neurologists are taught to get the symptoms then discover where in the nervous system the symptoms are coming from before trying to find the variations.

"Neurologists are kind of the detectives in medicine," he said. "When no one else can figure out why something is happening, it's our jobs to look a little deeper."

As one of the newer medical fields of study, sleep medicine fascinated Dr. Hernandez. Although researchers have studied sleep for decades, according to Dr. Hernandez the importance of the field is just starting to emerge. "It's a young field that has a lot of research potential and that's what really attracted me to it," he explained. "It's a field you can learn about, discover things in, and it just continues to grow."

During his time in sleep medicine, Dr. Hernandez has come to find that people don't take the need for sleep seriously.

"Sleep is your body's tune-up," Dr. Hernandez said. "There is a reason we sleep a third of our lives because our bodies need that time to repair and store memories."

He compares the body's reaction to sleep deprivation to a car engine. "You can get away with not tuning it up for a while but eventually it's going to catch up with you," Dr. Hernandez illustrated, "Your engine might last you 100,000, miles but don't expect it to last you 200,000 before it breaks down. The same is true for your body without sleep."

This is a common issue that Dr. Hernandez sees among many of his patients.

"We live in a society that tells us that sleep is wasted time," Dr. Hernandez said. "Between coffee, energy drinks, and other stimulants, the world is truly sleep deprived."

In his role as a sleep medicine physician, Dr. Hernandez spends much of his time educating patients on the importance of good sleep. He strives to help his patients understand how getting back into a normal sleep pattern can improve their overall health.

"Once a patient understands 'the why,' they usually don't have a problem doing it," he explained. "Unfortunately, a lot of the treatments associated with sleep are a burden or uncomfortable for the individual. However, if a patient really understands the benefit, they tend to get great results."

With all the new developments in sleep medicine, Dr. Hernandez says it's an exciting time to be in the field. "I'm happy to be part of the growth in sleep medicine," he said. "It really goes hand and hand with job satisfaction. I enjoy having so much to look forward to each day; new treatments, new challenges and new things to learn."

For Dr. Hernandez and his team, this includes the CentraCare Sleep Center in Willmar. The Sleep Center is more comfortable and convenient for both patients participating in sleep studies, and our staff. "The Sleep Center helps us to have more efficient sleep studies and improve the overall experience for our patients," Dr. Hernandez explained.

Recently, Dr. Hernandez has also added the CentraCare – Monticello Sleep Center to his areas of sleep medicine support for the region.

In addition to his field of medicine, Dr. Hernandez says that he feels like he's found a good work life balance since coming to Willmar in 2017. In his previous roles, he found that his work schedule had taken over his life.

As the father of three young children, Dr. Hernandez felt as though he was missing out, not only on family time, but major milestones in his children's lives. "I was so busy that I never saw my family," Dr. Hernandez recalled. "As doctors, we have responsibilities to our patients, our jobs, and our families. In my Willmar practice, I’m able to be a good dad, husband, and doctor."

With a family connection to the Willmar community, Dr. Hernandez is excited to have found the right fit for his practice. "My grandparents are from Willmar, so I have been here most of my life off and on," he explained. "We had a cabin on Diamond Lake through my high school years and some of my fondest memories were made there. I have roots here and I am familiar with the area and lifestyle."

From finding the right specialty to finding the right clinic, Dr. Hernandez feels as though he has truly found his place. As sleep medicine continues to evolve, Dr. Hernandez believes he has discovered the meaning for his career.

"Sleep medicine is a field with so much potential for growth," Dr. Hernandez explained. "Being able to give patients an understanding of what's going on and giving them proper treatments, that's what being a physician is truly about."

Hear more from Dr. Hernandez about his passion for sleep medicine and helping patients live a better life in this video.