An accident of fate led one man to a sleep specialist, where he discovered the most life-changing tech he ever encountered.
For the wellness issue, I want to focus on the two pieces of tech: one that told me I had a serious health issue and one that fixed it.
Sleep apnea is a condition that affects roughly 22 million Americans, but 80 percent of people with moderate to severe apnea are undiagnosed. It’s strongly correlated with being male, overweight and a smoker. Though I’ve been all of those things at some point in my life, I never thought I had a sleeping problem. Sure, I was tired all the time, but I had always been. I’d snore so loudly that my partner would move to the couch and airplane passengers would abandon their seats around me. But I had no idea something was seriously wrong. If it weren’t for a series of well-timed coincidences, I still wouldn’t.
My health insurance plan has a deductible, and once I hit it, everything else for the year was fully covered. At that point, I went into all-you-can-insure mode. While at the dermatologist for “mole patrol,” I saw a sign in the lobby for the sleep center and thought I’d check it out. If I hadn’t read that sign or the clinic hadn’t been able to see me right away because of a cancellation, who knows where I’d be today?
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I had a 15-minute conversation with a doctor. He recommended a test — but not in a lab; they’re take-home now. Traditionally, diagnosing sleep issues required spending the night in a lab connected to a bunch of equipment, which seemed uncomfortable and expensive. Instead I was given a kit with an attachment to my finger (to measure pulse and oxygen levels) and a tube that went in my nose. I was told to go home, wear it to bed, drop it off the next day and expect results in about a week.
Less than 24 hours later, I got a call from the doctor’s office, demanding that I come in immediately and be fitted for a CPAP. I said I’d do it later in the week, but the nurse was insistent. When she told me my results, I understood why. Sleep apnea is measured in AHI (Apnea–Hypopnea Index) events per hour. An event is a pause in breathing for more than ten seconds that causes a decrease in blood oxygen. People in normal sleep have less than five events per hour. People with apnea are graded on a scale, with the most severe cases coming in at more than thirty events per hour. I had 108. The nurse used the word “extreme” twice in the two minute phone call. Doing the math, I realized that every single night I went to bed, 30 percent of the time I was not breathing.
A CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) is the first line treatment for sleep apnea. I was outfitted with the Philips Dreamstation, which I found to be surprisingly well designed. I’d heard horror stories about CPAPs being ugly and ungainly but the current generation is a quantum leap forward from the older models. It’s modern, white, curvy and sits unassumingly on my night stand. The most surprising thing? It’s virtually silent. It doesn’t disturb me or my partner. It has a humidifier, so my nose and mouth don’t dry out. And the mask I chose was a soft silicone rubber one, which is really comfortable.
The Dreamstation applies pressurized air to a mask through a tube. It can fit either just over your nose or more of your face, and the slight pressure helps keep airways open. But there’s some intelligent programming going on, too. You don’t get constant pressure; when you first put it on, the pressure is barely noticeable. It only increases when it detects you’re not breathing, so it’s constantly monitoring and adjusting to your needs throughout the night. Practically everything is adjustable, from the humidity levels to the mask. It even has a Color LED screen that shows your progress over the past few days and provides reminders to change filters or obtain supplies.
It’s also rather well connected, which tickles my inner geek. It has Bluetooth and app that offers insight into total usage, mask leakage, and your nightly AHI score. It also has a cellular modem to send your data to your doctor and an SD card backup.
How did it work for me? That first night, I had the best sleep of my entire life. When I woke up, it was like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door and that burst of Technicolor floods into the gloomy, sepia-hued farmhouse. A lifelong haze lifted, and my definition of feeling rested changed radically and instantly. Since I got my CPAP, I have not shut up about it. I get pulled aside by friends and family at parties, asking me – in hushed tones – whether I think they also might have a problem.
My response is always the same: The best sign that something is wrong is a concern — either in the back of your own mind or that expressed by a loved one. If either of those apply to you, talk to your doctor, take the test, and if you’re told you need a CPAP, use it. Surprisingly, only 34 percent of those people who are prescribed a CPAP machine use the device consistently and correctly.
Since that first night over a year ago, I never go to bed without it. It didn’t kill intimacy with my partner, and I wake up feeling refreshed. For all the tech that’s out there that claims to be “life changing,” my CPAP is the one that delivered literally overnight.
And in case you’re wondering: I went from 108 episodes an hour to only 0.8. Learn more at sleepapnea.org.
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Last modified: July 8, 2019