In the midst of all my other medical issues since turning 40 years old, I’d like to officially add one more diagnosis to the mix: Obstructive Sleep Apnea. That’s right, I have that disorder that is characterized by large people snoring loudly with full face masks chugging along as they sleep. Maybe you have a different idea of it, but that was mine. Remember that show “Mike and Molly” with Melissa McCarthy? I loved that show, but Mike had sleep apnea and he slept with those tubes and machines and I always thought, “Oh wow, how can anyone deal with that?” Hmpf. Let me back up.
All of my life, or at least as far back as I can remember, I have woke up in the middle of the night coughing and gasping for breath. When I was a kid my mom used to say I must have been having a bad dream, and I believed her. That made sense. Why else would I be crying saying I can’t breath as a child? As I got older and started to experience panic attacks on the reg, I decided that was what was happening when I would wake up shaking, coughing, crying, gasping for breath. I must be having panic attacks. This doesn’t happen all the time, I should add. It’s like once or twice a month on average, but over the last year it has ramped up to a couple times a week. It got to the point where I was afraid to fall asleep some nights because I thought it was night I would have a panic attack.
Fast forward to a month ago, I asked my doc for some sleep meds. I didn’t really elaborate, I just said I can’t sleep. She prescribed me Trazodone and we went on with our life. A month later I had to go back to see her and check in with the sleeping pills and that’s when I was like, “Oh sure it’s working, but I’m still waking up in a panic attack.” She looked at me funny then and told me to explain. I told her all about what I thought was a panic attack or maybe a nightmare? Then she looked at me a little bit like I was dumb and she was all, “That’s not how panic attacks work. It sounds like sleep apnea.” Then she sent me to Dr. Sharma, the sleep doctor at Emory’s Sleep Center.
Dr. Sharma’s office was able to get me right in (there was a cancellation the day I called, which is a lucky thing if you know Emory) and I went to see her the next day. I should say here that all those ideas of sleep apnea were sneaking into my head at this point. I legit wondered if I was “big enough” to suffer from this. I always just assumed this was people who were like hundreds of pounds, and while I am over 200 pounds, I’m not too far over and I’ve been actively working on losing weight the slow and steady method. That’s how dumb I was. (Face palm)
In Dr. Sharma’s office I saw the regular suspects. I saw elderly people, people who were maybe two hundred pounds bigger than me, but then I saw this really slim guy with a t-shirt on that read something about some marathon he’d run, and he was holding his mask, waiting to see his doctor. I was utterly confused. That’s when I got called back and schooled on obstructive sleep apnea by Dr. Sharma.
Turns out obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can happen to anyone, even kids. That’s when I told her that this had been happening to me since I was a kid. OSA is about the way your airways react when your are sleeping. For some people it is the weight that lays against their chests, for others it is about the way your airways are made. When we sleep our body relaxes and if we have small or abnormally-shaped airways (or both, which is likely my case) they get too relaxed and they start to collapse onto each other restricting your airways and plummeting your oxygen levels. Then, because we aren’t getting enough oxygen, our brain alerts our body to wake us up and it does so in a panic gasping for the air we need to fill up our lungs. I was shaking along with her as she was telling me this because this all made sense to me. She told me it sounded like I have OSA, but that we’d have to do a sleep study to have an official diagnosis.
This was days before I was scheduled to go into surgery for my hip, so she suggested an at-home study because we could get that done that evening. She could send me home with all that I needed, though she said that sometimes an in-lab study is still needed if the results are inconclusive. I agreed to the in-home study and I was sent home with instructions on how to do it.
There are probably many methods and companies that help in this process, but I was given the “WatchPat One” information and equipment. This is one-time use equipment, paid by your insurance, that goes along with an app. You download the app, log in with a specific password from your doctor, and before you go to sleep you connect the “watch” and the finger monitor. This is what mine looked like.
It connects to your phone via Bluetooth and basically you just fall asleep and it tracks your oxygen levels and your heart rate all night. It can give false negatives and it can give inconclusive results, it is not near as advanced as the in-lab studies, which are where you spend the night in the sleep center hooked up to a millions machines, but in severe cases this can give a clear diagnosis and at this point Dr. Sharma suspected I had a severe case of OSA. I asked her at one point if losing weight would make it go away. I was still so stuck on my weight being the factor, and she said it might help some people who have moderate OSA, but in my case, she suspected it was so bad, had gone on for so long, that it wouldn’t matter much. Turns out she was right…
Four days after my sleep study she called to tell me that I have severe OSA and most likely have had it since I was a child. She said that my airways are probably small and abnormal and that only a machine would help me. She said that I needed to get on a machine ASAP and use it every night. She said all these years of dealing with this had the capacity to do a real number on my heart, and y’all know I don’t need anymore bad vibes with my heart.
Fast forward to this week and we are currently waiting on insurance to okay not a CPAP machine, which is what most people know, but an APAP machine. A CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine is used to pump oxygen into your body through the mask at a continuous pressure. You set the pressure and let it do its thing. I’m “special” though, because of course I am. *Hair Flip* I need a much more advanced (ahem, more expensive) machine known as an APAP (Automatic Positive Airway Pressure) machine, that meets my oxygen levels where they are and automatically adjusts how much air I need. This is because the “severe” part of my OSA is in my REM cycle and it’s pretty erratic. With the APAP my doctor won’t have to constantly monitor and change how much pressure I get, because it’s kind of impossible for us to know as it changes so drastically. The machine will constantly assess as I’m sleeping and do it for me.
Listen, I’m not sharing this to scare any of you. We all have trouble sleeping from time to time, but if you are like me and it is consistent trouble and you feel like you can’t breathe sometimes and it’s to the point where you are afraid to fall asleep, talk to your doctor please, regardless of your size, because OSA can have real problems on you health and if left unchecked it can get progressively worse.
I’ll work my way through this shame I feel, shame about lots of different things, and you just stay happy as can be that you aren’t me.
Today I was thinking about how I turn 41 in a few weeks and I was excited because it would appear that 40 hasn’t done me any favors, but the truth of the matter is, 40 is the year I got the nerve to deal with all these problems head on, to look for the answers, to ask the questions, to put my ignorance and my shame aside and try to get healthier, so I should be proud of myself. And I will be one day. Maybe I just need a good night’s sleep first.
Stay safe and sane, y’all.
PS… This is what I had to see when I was at Dr. Sharma’s office and I thought it might give me nightmares, so I will pass it on to you. Just FYI, they weren’t looking at the patient’s chair before I got into the room. 🙂