© 2012 Keith McWalter
Ok, so I snore. My wife Courtney informed me of this shortly after we got married several years ago. It was said in a loving, amused way, the way she might have referred to my charmingly masculine aversion to asking directions while driving, or my tendency to be perhaps a bit overly concerned about neatness around the house. This came as a surprise to me, as none of my prior bedmates over the years, of which there was a reasonably select but representative number, had ever mentioned anything about my having snored. Courtney assured me that I did, and to underscore the point, shortly thereafter began wearing earplugs to bed at night.
I thought little of this, and added my alleged snoring to the short list of minor imperfections to which mortal man is heir, along with thinning hair and toe fungus. My primary acknowledgement of the subject was to help my wife screw the bright orange earplugs into her dainty ears every night.
Then one evening, in the midst of one of our regular couple-dates with our friends Elke and Marybeth, the subject of snoring somehow arose. Elke set down her fork for emphasis and said something like, “Oh. Let me tell you about snoring.”
Now Elke’s partner Marybeth, like Elke herself, is about as svelte and buff an adult woman as I ever hope to meet, and while my imaginings of their bedtime activities admitted of many things, big-time snoring was not among them. But it turned out that Marybeth’s snoring was so loud and alarming –involving total stoppage of breathing for disturbingly long periods of time– that Elke had taken to recording it on an old handheld dictation machine so that the next day she could demonstrate to Marybeth why she was tired all the time and worried about Marybeth’s survival from night to night.
Elke had eventually prevailed on Marybeth to go to Stanford for an overnight “sleep study,” technically known as a polysomnogram. The results were startling: for every hour of REM sleep (the best kind) that Marybeth achieved, 37 minutes of it were disrupted by various kinds of snorting, choking, or non-breathing. This is called obstructive sleep apnea, and not only can it annoy your bed-mate, but also put a strain on your heart, starve your brain for oxygen, and shorten your life.
Marybeth was given what is called a CPAP machine, for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. It consists of an electric air pump the size of a loaf of bread, connected by a rubber tube to a horrific face mask that looks like something Darth Vader might have worn had he had a penchant for beige latex. When you inhale through the mask, the pump exerts gentle air pressure to keep the soft tissue of the throat from collapsing during sleep and obstructing your airway. Marybeth assured us that wearing a Jason psycho-killer mask with a rubber hose coming out of it was a real sex buzzkill and took her weeks of nightly wearing to get used to. But she also said that it had changed her life: she actually slept well for the first time in years and didn’t keep Elke up worrying that she would stop breathing and maybe not start again.
This story nagged at me in the months that followed. Nothing suggested that I had sleep apnea. I ascribed my frequent morning grogginess to my natural circadian rhythms – that is, I am not a “morning person,” as my wife and legions of co-workers have learned to their lasting disappointment. I wasn’t fatigued during the day, didn’t drop off into a snooze while driving. I was skinny and fit. (But so was Marybeth, and she had it bad.) Courtney didn’t think I stopped breathing during the night, but what did she know? She was asleep herself, with those nice orange plugs in her ears.
This minor obsession was partly a function of my inner geek: I was a science nerd as a boy, president of the Future Physician’s Club in high school, and would in fact have gone to medical school if not for the pesky little detail that I had no aptitude for math and had nearly flunked high school chemistry. Still, my fascination with science and medicine persists, and I read up on all the latest developments as best I can in the Wall Street Journal and Wired magazine.
I’m also a teeny bit perfectionistic, as Courtney would be quick to affirm. (I believe “OCD” is the acronym she uses.) I’m hard-wired for self-improvement, intolerant of my many imperfections, and flat-out vain. Snoring to beat the band didn’t square with my self-image as a suave metrosexual, let alone with my secret plan to live forever.
I eventually consulted our family doctor about the possibility of doing a sleep study. As I was so atypical a candidate for sleep apnea, he suggested a half-measure: an at-home test that I could self-administer. Sounded like fun. I signed up.
The test kit arrived in the mail from Redwood City, CA, and consisted of a monitoring device the size of an overgrown watch that you strapped to your wrist, and several thin wires that connect to various points on your chest and neck via white adhesive disks. Finally, a little blood oxygen reader goes on your forefinger like a white plastic clothespin.
The get-up was minimal and didn’t impede my usual tendency to drop off to sleep in about 30 seconds. Next day I mailed the whole rig back to Redwood City in the box it came in and awaited the results.
Our doctor called a few days later to report that the monitor had shown about 17 “disturbances” per hour – not necessarily obstructive, non-breathing events, but something that was changing my sleeping vital statistics on that order of frequency. He said they he’d “prefer” to see this in the range of 10 or below, so the results were only marginally indicative of a problem, but perhaps suggested that a full-blown polysomnogram might be in order at some convenient point in the future.,,.
to be continued….