Who Would Have Guessed I Had Sleep Apnea?

Many people suffer from sleep apnea disorder.

In this sleep apnea article, Kelley Cook Donovan guides you as she learns more about her sleep apnea disorder.


The earliest I can remember having any sleep difficulty was the college summer I spent living with my best friend in Los Angeles. We shared a room, and after two nights I came home from my job to find that she had moved her futon mattress into the closet, where she slept the rest of the summer. She could no longer stand what she called my "snoring and gasping." I shrugged it off as allergies from the smog.

Ten years later my nighttime drama seemed to be worsening: my husband, a light sleeper, would wake me in the middle of the night in a panic, saying, "Honey, you're not breathing!" Other times he would not have to wake me because I'd shoot into a sitting position gasping for air.

I tried nasal strips, humidifiers and allergy medication. Nothing worked. My husband became increasingly concerned and wanted me to see a doctor, but it wasn't until after we watched a news story about sleep apnea that I too became concerned. I seemed to have all the symptoms: in addition to my nightly chortling, I fell asleep in under five minutes and slept for 10-12 hours at a time if I didn't set an alarm, yet I never felt rested.

The typical sleep apnea patient is middle-aged, overweight, smokes, and/or lives a sedentary lifestyle. I thought, "How could I have sleep apnea?" I was 28, thin, fit and a nonsmoker. Nonetheless, I made an appointment with a pulmonary doctor who recommended I undergo a sleep study.

The Sleep Study

One evening a few months later I arrived at Georgetown Hospital at 9:00 p.m., and 30 minutes later a technician directed me to my room, which had been halfheartedly decorated to look like a bedroom (except for the cold tile floors). I sat in an easy chair and read until the technician returned to pour a cold gel that smelled like a mixture of motor oil and turpentine on my scalp, face, chest, stomach and legs, pasting electrodes at various sites. It was uncomfortable but painless.

By 10:45 p.m. I crawled into bed while the technician held all the cords that connected me to the monitoring machine. After some maneuvering to find a position that I could sleep in for the next several hours, the technician banded the cords and set them next to me. After she left, I lay there and worried about how I would sleep with the cords snaking out from me and the cold, wet sensation on my head. But it was quiet and dark in the room, and I soon fell asleep.

While I was sleeping, the technician watched me through a video camera; she could also talk to me, and I to her, if necessary. The electrodes monitored my brain waves, eye movements, breathing, blood oxygen levels, heart rate and muscle activity. After a night of nightmares about the sleep study, I woke at 5 a.m. to the technician standing next to the bed. She removed the electrodes (again, painless), and I drove home looking like Medusa and smelling like an auto mechanic.

The results indicated that my snoring was moderate to severe, and I awakened 10 times an hour, which is considered "significant." I scheduled an appointment with an ear, nose and throat specialist who told me my septum was deviated and my turbinates (nasal bones) were enlarged. Upon her suggestion, I scheduled surgery for a few months later for septoplasty and "trimming" of my turbinates.

Other less invasive methods for treating sleep apnea are losing weight, sleeping only on the side, quitting smoking, avoiding alcohol for several hours before sleep, and not taking sleeping pills or tranquilizers. Dental appliances are helpful for some people, as are masks that apply continuous air pressure during the night. For those who have severe sleep apnea, other forms of surgery that alter the soft tissue of the throat and palate are used, and, in life-threatening situations, tracheostomy can be used.

The Sleep Apnea Surgery and Recovery

The surgery was quick, easy, outpatient, and done while I was under general anesthesia. Pain medication took away the post-operative pain, but I was very uncomfortable. For about two weeks I had to walk with my head held higher than normal, to bend from the knee (or risk a searing pain in my face), and I could not exercise or do anything strenuous. The pain was mild to moderate. Also, I was not allowed to blow my nose , and during the healing process that's all I wanted to do. In the months to follow, my nose was tender, swollen and drippy, and mucus coursed down the back of my throat.

How I Sleep Today

It's been a little more than a year since the surgery. My husband rarely wakes me now, and I rarely wake him! In fact, he's only heard me snore once and I had a cold at the time. Even when my allergies flared up last year, for the first time I could still breathe out of both nostrils, day and night. Overall, everything simply flows a little more smoothly. Perhaps most significantly, I wake up rested each morning, after years of wondering why I always felt tired.