One of the beats I’ve written on for years within health and within pediatrics in particular is sleep. I’m not as well known for reporting on evidence about children’s sleep as I am for vaccines or other issues, but it has always been one of the more fascinating areas I’ve focused on, and it’s always been a favorite just behind vaccines. Over the past five years or so, I’ve probably read at least four or five dozen studies related to children, teens, and sleep, and I’ve written stories specifically about probably half of those. And for the vast majority of those stories, I’ve relied upon my favorite source for all things sleep as at least one of the voices in each story – William C. Kohler, a sleep medicine physician in Spring Hill, Florida who specialized in pediatric sleep.
Generally, it’s not a great idea to rely on one source too extensively for reporting. It’s important to seek a diversity of sources, both to represent the diversity of individuals out there with expertise in the area, and to represent the diversity of professional perspectives on a particular research question. There were certainly stories I wrote where I didn’t call on Dr. Kohler, but it was hard not to ask him for his perspective on so many of them. He had been practicing sleep medicine for decades, had authored studies, and was writing a book on sleep over last year, and many of the stories I was writing were short summaries of the research rather than extensively researched and reported in-depth pieces.
But those aren’t the real reasons I called Dr. Kohler so much. I have three phone numbers for him in my phone even though I always reached out to him first by email. That’s because he always, always, always, without fail, called me within 24 hours after an email. I saved each number he called me from – they were his home, cell, and office numbers – mainly so I would know when he was calling. Sometimes I was in the middle of something and couldn’t answer, and if I knew it was him, I knew I was fine – he always left very detailed messages with his comments on a study, and then I could follow up as needed. Some of my voicemails from him are several minutes long, and I’d replay them as I typed out what he said and then determined if I had more questions. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people for my stories, dozens and dozens of researchers, and I’ve sometimes relied on some more frequently than others, particularly for areas I would report on repeatedly. Not one person I’ve ever interviewed was as reliable as Dr. Kohler.
But that’s not the only reason I liked Dr. Kohler. I actually just liked him. He was a grandfatherly and kind, and we sometimes got off topic and talked about tangential things. He knew of my struggles with my son’s sleep, and he knew my own struggles to get to sleep at a reasonable hour. We would joke about when he would call in the morning because he knew I wouldn’t pick up – I was still in bed. He told me about his grandchildren. Sometimes he was returning from a family event or on his way to meet them at church. It was evident through our conversations over the years – despite their professional purpose – that he was devoted to his family and heavily involved in his church. When a hurricane was on its way, we discussed the weather, and I told him to be safe. When snow was headed my way, he told me the same. It was idle chit chat between questions about this or that research findign, but it built a rapport over the years. He told me stories about other researchers in the field, such as his famous colleague Ferber, and gave me historical context about research questions. We were working on our books at the same time and discussed that work briefly. He was incredibly well-read in his field and spoke eloquently. And he was kind. I would ask him the same questions over and over sometimes – “Can you explain the simplest way to describe hypopnea to an eighth grade-level layperson audience again?” I might ask – and he always obliged. Sometimes he would point out inaccuracies in published pieces that I quickly corrected, but again, he always did it very kindly.
You’ve surely noticed by now I’m using the past tense. I was given a sleep study assignment about kids and napping last Friday. I was excited when I got the study because it was relevant to my own life as a parent, but it also gave me an opportunity to reconnect with Dr. Kohler. I had not spoken with him since last September because I’ve been so deeply immersed in my book work and haven’t written about sleep studies in the interim. I immediately sent off an email and gave him some times when I knew I’d be available because I wanted to be sure I actually got to pick up the phone and speak to him instead of just getting a voicemail. I wanted to tell him I’d finished the book, to find out if he had finished his, and to tell him my second son is a much better sleeper than the first.
He didn’t call on Friday, but perhaps he had a family event going on. I never expected him to drop what he was doing for my story. I just knew he had always called back quickly. He didn’t call Saturday. He didn’t call Sunday. I thought that was odd, but it was a three-day weekend. He didn’t call Monday. I made a note in my phone to try his office later that day, and the time got away from me. I knew by now I would need to reach out to other researchers for an additional perspective, and I was reaching out to some PR colleagues to find at least a second source for my story. I got some of what I needed late Monday night, last night. The story was due this morning, and I was starting on it at 2 a.m. last night.
But something wasn’t right. I had emailed Dr. Kohler Friday. For three straight days, I hadn’t heard a word. That just… wasn’t right. And I had a hunch. And I googled “William Kohler Florida obituary.” And it was the first result: “KOHLER, William Curtis M.D., age 72, died at home in Brooksville on October 15, 2014. Formerly, he lived in Tallahassee, Florida and Fishtail, Montana.” Only a couple lines later, I was sure it was the right person: “Dr. Kohler will be especially remembered for his work in sleep medicine. He was involved with sleep medicine for over 40 years and was also Board Certified in Sleep Medicine as well as Pediatrics and Neurology.” I learned he did finish his book: “Dr. Kohler’s life-long interest in the field of sleep medicine also prompted him to research numerous ways in which sleep disorders can be treated successfully. Shortly before his death, he completed a manuscript currently being readied for publication next spring by the Taylor & Francis Group.” And I learned that my impression of the man, even in bits and spurts over the years, limited to professional interactions, was pretty on-target: “Bill was a man of unwavering faith. ‘Dr. Kohler’ was widely regarded as the ‘sweetest man I ever met.’ He loved the Lord with all of his heart and loved his neighbors as himself. It was rare that he wasn’t smiling or in a good mood regardless of the occasion. Through his faith and love of God he lived with an inner peace, comfort and confidence throughout his life despite turmoil and hardships.”
Indeed, that was the Dr. Kohler I had the pleasure of working with for five years. And then I surprised myself – I began crying. What was this?! I had never met Dr. Kohler in person. I knew his voice mainly as it spoke of sleep apnea and the importance of “good quality and quantity of sleep,” a phrase he must have uttered 30 times to me. I thought of the time I had a conference in Florida and asked him how far he was from it, but it had been too far to meet for a coffee. I flipped through my phone. Nine voicemails were still on there from him. I listened to one from last September, a month before he died. I smiled as I recalled our conversations and heard the same mix of kindness and authority and knowledge in his message. And then his final line, the same one, every single time, in every single voicemail: “Hope you’re having a great day.”
I was having a great day, Dr. Kohler, until I found out you weren’t hear to wish me another one. I know he had a long, wonderful life (he was in his 70s) with a lovely family whom he cared very deeply for. And I’m nothing more than one of many journalists who consulted his expertise on sleep research. But he was indeed a special man. And he will be missed, even from this journalist from afar. And writing about sleep will be just a tiny bit less sweet from now on because he will no longer be waking from his.