Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Night in CPAP Hell

Until I was in my 40’s, I took sleep for granted.  Years of being on the road as a musician as a younger man, with “unusual” hours, helped me develop the skill to fall asleep almost anywhere, under any circumstances, regardless of the noise in the environment, pretty much on a moment’s notice.

In my early 40’s, there was a period of five or six years where I did a fair amount of travel by car, consulting radio stations.  The longest trip by car was five hours from Madison, and the trips involved an overnight stay.  I’d “make the circuit” every six weeks or so, and I began to notice that it was often very hard for me to stay awake during any drive that lasted more than a couple hours.  I was driving big-ass Cadillacs at the time, land-cruisers that were designed more to put you to sleep than keep you alert at the wheel.  I would carry a pillow and blanket in the car, and when I got tired, I’d pull off the road and sleep for a while.

I always just assumed that I was burning the candle at both ends, and that’s what made me tired.  It never occurred to me that I might not be getting good sleep.

The life-changing experience came when I fell asleep while having a “conversation” with my bride.  We were having a disagreement about something-or-other; the kind of minor flap married couples have every so often.  Somewhere in the exchange I fell asleep, and when I woke up, my bride was sitting down next to me on the couch.  While many women of Italian heritage might have heaved a frying pan at me for falling asleep during a tiff, she waited until I woke up and realized what had happened, and she told me it was time for me to have a sleep-study done.

To shorten the story, I got in line for an overnight sleep study at the UW-Hospital; they determined within about 90 minutes that I had sleep apnea so bad that I would stop breathing sometimes for 90 seconds at a time, fitted me with a CPAP machine, and since that time (1998) I’ve slept with a CPAP every night.  Briefly, if you don’t know, CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure; it’s essentially a pump that blows air down your throat via a face mask connected by tubing to the pump, specially calibrated to each individual user’s precise needs.  Some people never adapt to the mask-and-hose arrangement; others, like me, take to it immediately, because it improves your quality of sleep exponentially.  I can doze without the machine, but I can’t really “sleep” without it.

These CPAP machines are good for about 5 years of nightly use, and the machine I had was in its sixth year.  So last week I made an appointment with the sleep authorities and they set me up with the newest, most modern, hi-tech CPAP on the market.  It’s pictured above.  That little thingy sticking out of the machine is where you attach the hose, which then goes to the mask that goes over your nose while you sleep.

I had the machine on for 90 minutes and absolutely could not adapt to all the new hi-tech features the new machines have, like much more precise pressure ups-and-downs in an attempt to match your natural breathing rhythm, and – since this this is essentially a glorified air pump – every time the pressure changes, when you exhale, the machine emits a small noise.

Since we live in exurbia, it’s REALLY quiet at night – and that small change in the pitch of the tiny noise the new machine made sounded like – well, my wife described it as a sheep bleating.  When I finally gave up trying to adapt to the new high-tech machine and shut it off, she was awake (couldn’t adapt to the new noise, either), and I told her I was going to have to hook up the old machine again in order to sleep. 

I called the sleep authorities the next morning and made my report, and they were more than appropriately concerned.  I have to go in and see them again Thursday morning, so they can figure out if the new hi-tech machine is behaving normally and it’s just something I can’t adapt to, or if the machine itself if defective.

I suspect the former, and that I’ll end up asking them to equip me with a restored OLDER model, so I can continue to enjoy 8 solid hours of sleep every night. 

For some of us, not every medical advance is a good one.


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