What is sleep apnea? You hear the term being bandied about, but until your loved ones or you yourself are afflicted with it, it often remains an obscure term.
Sleep apnea is a condition wherein a person stops breathing several times during the night, thus fragmenting the sleep and causing lowered blood oxygen levels. As a result some people afflicted with it will fall asleep at random times during the day, even on the job or while driving a car.
Only when sharing a room with my cousin Lorraine on a pleasure trip to Ukraine in 2001 did I first become aware that I had this very problem. Rather, Lorraine did.
"No, it wasn’t your snoring so much as your gaps in breathing that kept me awake," she said the first morning. "There were times when I’d wonder if you were ever going to breathe again. It was scary."
Then she added, "promise you’ll get it checked out as soon as you get home!"
My family doctor sent me to the sleep specialist, Dr. Sat Sharma, at the city’s cutting-edge sleep laboratory at St. Boniface Hospital (now evolved into the Sleep Disorder Clinic at the Misericordia Health Centre). This resulted in my spending one night all wired up in their lab, an attendant hovering faithfully nearby beside a monitoring machine. After I’d slept one hour he readjusted the controls and I slept again, to be dismissed at dawn.
At my follow-up visit with Dr. Sharma I learned the appalling news that I had experienced severe obstructive apneas 70 times during one hour, some up to 20 seconds in duration. He prescribed a nasal CPAP machine (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) with its mask and dispersal of air under controlled pressure to resolve my problem, including that of snoring. My new CPAP machine has humidifier capabilities as well.
The nose mask with its flexible hose is now my constant companion whenever I go to sleep. Holes where the two are joined allow the air I breathe out to escape. The sight I present is not a pretty one, but CPAP was supposed to be my Elixir of Youth — and it did somewhat re-energize me.
And certainly the trauma of clawing desperately for air when finding myself choking in the middle of the night is now just an unpleasant memory.
How am I faring 13 years later? Do I still endure those gaps in my breathing that kept Lorraine awake?
I don’t know.
lt’s time for a second assessment at the sleep clinic, but according to Shamona Harnett’s Free Press article last June, the wait time in Manitoba to see a sleep specialist can range from several months to a few years.
Regrettably, I will have to see a different respirologist this time, for the popular Dr. Sharma has moved to Toronto to be closer to his family. For an instant appraisal, perhaps I should just arrange a second trip with my cousin to Ukraine — or not, considering the turmoil in the country right now.
Anne Yanchyshyn is a community correspondent for St. Vital.