Finding dreamland

Resting easy after years of suffering from sleep apnea

The author, all hooked up for his sleep study.

The author, all hooked up for his sleep study.

Photo by Ken Smith

Catch some ZZZ’s:
Sleep apnea affects an estimated 22 million Americans, with 80 percent of the cases of moderate and severe obstructive sleep apnea going undiagnosed, according to If you think you might be suffering from apnea or other sleep disorders, talk to your doctor about getting a sleep test.

I woke with a start from restless sleep, roused by the sound of an unfamiliar female voice and struggling to make sense of my surroundings. I was in a strange bed in a dimly lit room resembling that found in a motel, save for a few pieces of high-tech medical equipment sitting on and mounted above the bedside table. As I sat up, the realization I was connected to this equipment via more than a dozen tubes, wires and sensors—taped and clamped to my head, chest, arms and legs—rose to the surface of my muddy consciousness.

“Mr. Smith, you definitely have serious sleep issues,” the woman, a respiratory therapist at Chico’s North State Sleep Center, said in a comforting voice. “We’re going to try the second half of the night with the CPAP machine.”

With her words, I remembered I was there to participate in an overnight sleep study, known in medical terminology as a polysomnogram. The equipment measured my brain activity, eye movements, heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels, body movement and other functions as I struggled through that first few hours of sleep. I took the test to determine if I have sleep apnea, a condition in which the body’s airways become repeatedly blocked or restricted during sleep.

The therapist outfitted me with face mask that covered my nose and mouth, and the CPAP machine it was connected to immediately started blasting air into those openings. I struggled to breathe against the pressure, a sensation that felt something like drowning, and my hands rose instinctively in an attempt to push the mask off. The therapist’s gentle voice became firm, like that of a mother administering medicine to a truculent toddler, as she held the mask in place.

“Mr. Smith, you have severe sleep apnea,” she admonished. “You need this.”

I’ve had problems sleeping my entire life. At a recent family gathering, my stepmother offered a one-line summary of what I was like as a child, which I took as profound and plan to someday adapt into my own epitaph: “You were fearless, and you never slept.” Little did I know then that my chronic lack of sleep could hasten the need for that grim (albeit badass-sounding) remembrance.

I’ve always attributed my lifelong insomnia to the fact I have trouble quieting my mind at nighttime, something I’ve attempted to treat over the years—with varying degrees of success—with everything from melatonin to marijuana to meditation.

Lena Chambers and John Vrbeta—North State Sleep Center’s patient/practice liasion and co-owner/sleep lab manager, respectively—inside one of the center’s sleep labs.

Photo by Ken Smith

But in my late teens I started to be bothered by physical as well as mental barriers to sleep that have earned me some notoriety among those who’ve witnessed my nocturnal behavior. I’d snore, sit up, sometimes speak and thrash about, even throw an occasional punch. Most concerning, I frequently stop breathing. This activity increased in recent years, and I finally decided to do something about it last September, at the urging of my long-suffering wife.

I’d already guessed I had sleep apnea. It’s a common condition, and particularly so for people with bronchial and weight issues, both of which I admittedly have in spades. But I had no idea how severe it was until I followed up on my sleep study with Dr. Dinesh Verma, the affable and snappily dressed expert in critical care, pulmonary and internal medicine at the North State Sleep Center. At a loss to convey the severity of my apnea in medical terms, he summed it up by saying my test results were “absolutely crazy bad.”

It turns out I’d stopped breathing an average of 80 times an hour, or approximately every 50 seconds, during the first half of the study. Even worse, my oxygen saturation was less than 90 percent—the number necessary to maintain healthy body functions—for 94 percent of the time I spent “sleeping.” Verma was hesitant to even use the word “sleep” to describe my nighttime behavior, as I’d never dipped below the first two of five stages of sleep during my study. The latter three stages are known as deep, or restorative, sleep, and are necessary to rest and repair the body. The fifth and deepest stage is REM (rapid eye-movement) sleep, in which we dream and our brains process complicated problems.

Verma and Beth LeBaron, a respiratory therapist at Enloe Home Medical Equipment, gave me a rundown of the dangers of sleep apnea and how serious my condition was. Sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on the body’s organs by disallowing restorative functions to occur, leads to hormone and protein imbalances and can cause loss of memory and other cognitive problems. It weakens immunity and greatly increases the risks of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and many other illnesses. It can also cause depression, anxiety, and recent research ties chronic lack of sleep to dementia.

In my case, the severe lack of oxygen put me at imminent risk of having a stroke and caused my heart and lungs to work overtime. Verma warned that, if it was left untreated now—while I’m relatively young and healthy—I could develop heart arrhythmia in the next few years, and would definitely be plagued by serious medical conditions within 10 to 15 years.

Furthermore, I was constantly lethargic, struggling to stay awake most afternoons. This caused a great deal of consternation, knowing that I was missing out on life as my condition continued to worsen. Lacking REM sleep, I’d altogether stopped dreaming. I resolved to take whatever action necessary to make it better.

The primary treatment for sleep apnea is using a CPAP machine, like the one the therapist strapped to my face during the second half of my sleep study. Once she finally got it fitted, it took me a few minutes to overcome the drowning sensation, after which I eventually fell asleep.

That night, I got four hours of the first real sleep I’d had in years. I got my own CPAP a few weeks later, which I’ve used religiously every night since. With my machine, I sleep deeply and silently through the night. I’ve gone from having 80 apneas an hour to an average of one every two hours.

The effects of sleeping through the night have been life-changing. My wife is much happier, and so am I. I have more energy and am more alert, and I don’t wake up feeling half-dead. Instead, I feel refreshed and open my eyes to a healthier future. I can finally dream again.