Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sleeping Like A Baby

Okay. So I waited almost three years before subjecting myself to a second overnight sleep test. Sure, I knew I had sleep apnea along with approximately 30 million other Americans, but when my neurologist pointed out that during my first sleep test, at one point, I'd stopped breathing for a whopping 54 seconds, I gasped.

"I can't hold my breath for 54 seconds!" I said.

"Well, you did."

He then lit into a litany of possible consequences of stopping breathing during one's sleep (not including the final ending): heart attacks, strokes, impotence, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

So, how could I continue to refuse to treat my sleep apnea?

The major stumbling block? Having to wear one of those ugly Darth Vader-like masks every night. It was bad enough that I've been inserting a mouth piece nightly that prevents me from gnashing my teeth but positions my jaw so that I resemble a baby monkey. Not pretty!

Still, it's a big step up from a clear mouthpiece to a mask with an oxygen tube connected to it.

"You're in good health," the doctor said. "Why take a chance when you can do something now to prevent any future problems?"

I'm not sure why his argument made sense when in the past I was willing to take my chances. Maybe it was my mother's experience. She was ninety and hospitalized with all kinds of ailments. One night the nurse walked in, saw that my mother wasn't breathing, and called a "Code Blue." Not once, but twice. The nurse and doctors thought she'd had a stroke. Only later after my panicked father had driven to the hospital, after I'd made a plane reservation to fly to Florida did the hospital staff realize that my mother had stopped breathing because she had sleep apnea.

I gave in and signed up for my second overnight sleep test. I didn't know until I checked in that this time I'd be tested wearing the C-PAP mask. Now, these masks apparently come in a variety of types. One of the least invasive is one in which small tubes carrying oxygen are placed in each nostril. But there's a downside: You cannot breathe through your mouth. If you do, the flow of oxygen stops and, as I was informed, stopping the flow too often during the night causes the oxygen to escape, drying out your mouth and reducing the effectiveness of the treatment.

But the technician was insistent. "Let's try this one first," she said. "It may be weird at first. And if you don't like it, we can try a full-face mask."

After I was all hooked up and ready to go, the technician turned out the lights and closed the door. Immediately, I panicked. What if I couldn't get enough air? It was like the first time I'd used a snorkel. I did my best to relax, breathing in and out through my nose like I do in yoga class. With some effort, I calmed down, only to feel my left nostril tightening. I was going to suffocate. I was sure of it.

"Bernadette," I said. "Can you hear me?"

She'd told me to call her if and when I needed something.

"Yes, I can hear you."

Thank goodness. For a moment there, I thought she'd decided to take a coffee break.

"I want to try the other mask."

Bernadette fitted me with a second mask. This number covered my nose and mouth with what felt like rubber edges to prevent the oxygen from escaping. It was a tight fit, but I didn't care. I could now breathe any way I wanted.

"Good night," Bernadette said a second time as she turned out the lights.

I thought about how brave my mother had been lying in that hospital bed with doctors and nurses trying to revive her. I'm sure she was confused, scared, terrified. But when I saw her a day later, she made light of the misdiagnosis and said all she wanted was to go home.

And that's all I wanted. To fall asleep, get this test over with, and go home.

I tossed and turned. The melatonin I'd taken didn't do a thing to relax me. I reached for one and then a second prescribed sleeping medication. Finally, I fell into a deep sleep that was interrupted about five hours later with a throbbing pain in the bridge of my nose.

"Bernadette, are you there?"

"Good morning. What can I do for you?"

"The mask . . . it's killing my nose."

"We can end the test," she said. "But first I need you to follow a few instructions."

Like what? I wanted the mask off.

"Close your eyes and don't open them until I tell you."

Couldn't she see? My eyes WERE closed."

"Okay, good. Now open your eyes and keep them open until I tell you."

What did this have to do with anything? I was going to rip the mask off if she didn't hurry.

After what seemed an eternity with additional exercises ("Look to the right." "Look to the left." "Wiggle your right foot." "Now your left.") Bernadette saved the day and unhooked the mask.

It's two days later, and the bridge of my nose is still sore. But what's a little soreness if I can breathe through the night, stop snoring, and maybe just maybe enable my husband to stop wearing earplugs for the first time in years?

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