Rolling in the deepWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
With the new year bringing a greater focus on health issues, I am working on a checklist of things that need to be addressed. One of those issues is sleep.
“Sleep is for the weak!” used to be one of my favorite rallying cries, but that has transformed to “I’m weak without sleep!” as the years flow by.
If you ask me, I am a sound sleeper; I can drop off in seconds, it takes a vuvuzela in the ear to wake me up and, when morning comes, I bounce up and attack the day. If you ask my wife, I am a terrible sleeper; I snore like a vuvuzela and often “stop breathing,” which causes great shuddering sighs as my brain jump-starts my respiratory system.
The combination of age, extra weight, raising two young boys who demand more energy than the angels who answer Tim Tebow’s prayers, an intense job (and the pain and suffering of enduring a lawsuit designed to terminate that job) have increased the need for sleep while simultaneously decreasing the opportunity for sleep. After a recent check-up, my doctor suggested I take a test for sleep apnea. Ugly word, apnea. Say it out loud a few times and see if it doesn’t make your nose wrinkle in distaste.
According to WebMD, “Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times. This means the brain — and the rest of the body — may not get enough oxygen. If left untreated, sleep apnea can result in a number of health problems including: high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, irregular heartbeats and heart attacks, diabetes and depression.”
I checked into a regional hospital’s sleep clinic recently for the test, assuming the apnea diagnosis would be correct. The Sleep Clinic room looked like a basic hospital room, with its twin bed, a wall TV and a bathroom/shower. I checked in, changed into sleepwear and called my family for a quick good-night.
The young female technician came in with a clear plastic bag full of masks. She explained that for the first few hours, I would sleep naturally and she would monitor my heart rate, breathing and eye movements via a ceiling-mounted video camera. Harboring no delusions about the assorted undignified movements, reactions and sounds one uncontrollably makes during sleep, I would have preferred a robot monitor or some sympathetic unattractive man at the other end of the video.
After the initial monitoring, if it was determined sleep apnea was an issue, the technician would wake me up, slip a breathing mask on me and monitor another few hours of sleep.
The technician demonstrated three breathing masks. The first one, a nostrils-only mask, reminded me of the Venom-dripping apparatus Bane uses before he attacks Batman. The second was a nose-and-mouth-covering suction cup I called “The Maverick,” after the air masks the pilots wore in “Top Gun.” The third was a full-face windshield that, with a bolt or two and darker shading, could have been called “The Vader.” But it was more like “The Anakin.”
I tried each of the masks, which were hooked up to a machine with hoses and a water receptacle (patent pending: Boris Karloff) that pumped air to the mask. That is called a continuous positive airway pressure machine, or CPAP, which is just ugly enough when you say it out loud to make you forget how ugly “apnea” sounds. The “Maverick” model formed a tight seal but exhaling through the nose was an effort; it felt like trying to breathe while walking in the hurricane simulator booth at Imagination Station. The “Anakin” mask made me feel like I was looking through the wrong side of an aquarium tank; it was all in my head, but it made me feel like I was drowning, a theme we will revisit. The “Bane” was the least obtrusive; it filled the nostrils but did not press on the sinuses or cover the mouth.
I chose the “Bane” and the technician then began the monitoring process, which consisted of attaching a dozen monitor tips to my head, neck, chin, abdomen and legs. When she was done, I looked like C-3PO after the Imperial Stormtroopers shot his inner workings out in “The Empire Strikes Back.” I almost asked about the red ball gag, but thought better of it. I was then asked to lie on my back, which is not how I sleep, on a thin pillow, which is not how I sleep, without my wife, which is not how I sleep, covered in wires and modules and straps to hold them all in place, which is not how I sleep. I reflected on the technician’s earlier comments that I would be observed sleeping “naturally,” and marveled at how differently two people could define one word.
The technician turned out the lights and left, and I tried to sleep, wired and with a severely limited range of motion. The last image I had seen on the TV was Uma Thurman in her yellow “Kill Bill” jumpsuit, and just as I was thinking about what a potentially embarrassing chain of events that could lead to and that I had better fall asleep thinking of something less enticing, like maybe Michael Madsen in “Kill Bill,” I dozed off.
The next thing I knew, the technician was bringing up the lights and calling my name over the intercom to wake me up. She immediately started fitting the “Bane” mask on my face. I knew she wasn’t allowed to share any of the results with me (I was curious to know the little details, like, you know, how many times an hour I stopped freaking breathing) but it wouldn’t be mask time unless I met the criteria.
I lay back down, now not only wired but trying to get used to air being forced in my nose, having to keep my mouth closed to maintain the seal and force air back out. I eventually fell asleep, and remember just one dream, in which I was drowning with Uma Thurman while trying to rescue C-3PO.
The technician woke me up four hours later, unhooked the mask and wires and wished me well. I filled out a form, showered, dressed and drove to work, thinking about how uneven and lacking in sleep my “sleep test” was. But as I drove, I realized how much more awake I felt. Throughout that day’s deadline, housework and family time, I felt more aware and energetic than I had in a very long time; it was like that TV commercial for allergy medicine where they peel back the cloudy film to reveal bright, vibrant colors.
It will be a few weeks before I see my doctor to get the test results and probably my own CPAP machine. It’s my first medical aid of aging (eyeglasses count, but I have worn them for 20 years), and while I know it won’t be the last, at least I will be able to face the others more awake.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.