I enjoy a certain amount of fascination regarding medical and health procedures. I am comfortable with visits to my doctor, and I make sure that I get my money’s worth by asking all kinds of questions – some of which have little if anything to do with me or my health. The MD perspective is rather unique and I enjoy picking his or her brain. This sleep clinic experience was going to be uncharted territory for me, and I anticipated storing up nuggets of information.
As luck would have it, I was the only patient that night. The technician was a young guy named Eric, and he was friendly and eager to talk about the process and his work. I knew a fair amount about sleep disorders from my own work, but I quizzed Eric on his experience with sleep walking (I did that a lot in my twenties), sleep terrors (not my experience), sleep paralysis (ditto, and evidently quite terrifying for those who experience it), people who act out their dreams (e.g., start hitting their sleeping partners or try jumping out windows) and the other mundane sleep problems. Turns out that the sleep clinic serves children to people in the 90s. The “average” patient is in his or her 40s or 50s, although anecdotally Eric has been noticing an increase in folks in their 60s and 70s.
I wish I kept track of the number of electrodes attached to me. There had to be twenty of them, and they were attached to my scalp, forehead, near my eyes, on my jaw, neck, behind the ears, and even my legs (to monitor restless leg syndrome). I also had two straps around my chest for measuring heartbeat and breathing. With the exception of these straps that were attached by Velcro, the electrodes involved this gooey paste-like substance. When Eric was done attaching everything to me – and the process took twenty minutes – I looked like something from a science fiction movie.
By Eric finished, the time was approaching 11:00 PM and I was getting pretty tired. Eric asked me to start the night sleeping on my back. Snoring and issues with sleep apnea are more likely to occur when someone is sleeping on his or her back. When you fall asleep, everything relaxes, including your throat and tongue, so there is a tendency for these things (including that thing that hangs down the back of your throat) to collapse. For those individuals who are prone to sleep apnea, the throat collapses entirely – and you stop breathing. At that point, your brain has to make a decision, either remain sleeping or wake up and breathe. The resumption of breathing is the default option, so the sleeper is jolted awake, often with a (loud) snort. The most common patient with sleep apnea is obese with poor health habits, but I don’t fit that description. I’m 6’2” and 170 pounds, and I work out 4-plus days a week. However, my problems seem to be structural… I don’t have much of a chin so stuff is rather tight in that area to begin with. When I doze off, it doesn’t take much for the inner structures to relax and close.
Anyway, I digress. Sleeping on my back, as per Eric’s request, was not going to be a problem. I often start out in that position anyway, so this was no big deal. So, lights out.
I couldn’t fall asleep.
Surprising as it sounds, the wires were not a problem. Rather, I kept thinking I’ve got to fall asleep. If I don’t I’ll screw up the data. So, I talked myself into a mini-frenzy. I wanted to “do well”. I wanted answers. The only way to get answers would be to fall asleep.
The other factor adding to the pressure was that if I met criteria for sleep apnea, Eric would try out a CPAP unit on me. CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. The unit keeps a relaxed airway open by providing a constant flow of air pressure. And, I wanted to see if that would be beneficial for me.
Finally, I feel asleep, but only after turning slightly to my side. Sometime later, Eric asked me via an intercom to turn to my back. I complied, but couldn’t fall asleep again.
This was getting crazy.
Finally, I said the hell with it, and turned to my side, and fell asleep.
There was no clock in the room, so I couldn’t tell the time, but sometime later I vaguely remember Eric appearing and putting a CPAP unit on me. I was thankful, because this meant my breathing data suggested something. I could sense the slightest pressure opening my airway, and I recall thinking the experience was remarkable.
Morning came, and more staff was on duty, including a woman with blue hair. People started giving me feedback about my results, which was surprising given that Eric told me the night before that he couldn’t provide any information. The doctor would be doing that next week.
Suddenly, I hear Eric say, “Okay, Tony, time to wake up.”
I did when he pulled the drapes open slightly to let some light in. He told me it was 6:15 AM. No one else was in the room. No young woman with blue hair. I had been dreaming that part of the whole thing. It was just Eric and me.
I asked him when he came in to put the CPAP on me. He stopped and stared.
I brought my hand to my face. Sure enough, there was nothing there beyond the numerous wires from the night before. I was stunned. I thought I was getting a great CPAP experience.
“You had a very difficult time sleeping on your back.”
I was disappointed. That meant that the results might be inconclusive. My breathing didn’t justify putting on a CPAP. But maybe that was because I didn’t sleep well on my back, and I really had sleep apnea – but they won’t know because I wasn’t a “good” subject. Would they have any answers for me? I don’t know. I won’t meet with the physician later next week.
My poor wife may have to live with a loudly snoring, non-sleep apnea husband. Sigh.