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Learning to Live with CPAP Machine to Treat Sleep Apnea Not an Easy Adjustment

My grandfather snored like a walrus with a head cold.

If you watched the exterior of that Pennsylvania farmhouse at night, you could see the roof rise and fall and the windows bulge outward with his nightly singing.

You could do that because you would have nothing else to do in the dark, unless, like grandma, you were nearly deaf. The rest of us certainly wouldn’t be asleep when Pap was. Take it from a 9-year-old girl staring wide-eyed into the blackness of rural Pennsylvania and contemplating the ghostly number of ancestors who died in the stone house built in 1848.

So perhaps Pappy is where I get this snoring thing.

My grown daughter Eleanor has been haranguing me for several years to go be checked for sleep apnea, a condition in which a person snores and then stops breathing — hopefully temporarily, though not always I’m told.

She claimed I would stop breathing for long stretches that made her nervous. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just more unnecessary doctor visits. After all, the dog rarely complains and almost never howls in unison. And me? I’m asleep. How would I know what I’m doing?

Several months ago, however, doctors investigating minor stomach trouble insisted that your local columnist undergo a quick test in which they knock you out and stick cameras down your throat to maraud around in the murky squishiness of what one might call the upper guts. One question they asked first: Have you ever been diagnosed with sleep apnea? No, I said, I haven’t.

Just as I came to, coughing and choking, being wheeled on a gurney down a hall at Advent Health, the doctor demanded, “I thought you said you didn’t have sleep apnea?” Gathering my wits, I retorted that she’d asked whether I’d been diagnosed with sleep apnea. Different question. Different answer.

However, scoring points in a battle of clever repartee with one’s physician while semi-conscious is a hollow victory. It leads only to more doctor visits. The next one was a sleep apnea doctor, and you’ve heard stories about what happens there.

Yep, they suited up your local columnist with gear that can only be described as a thingy-strapped-to-the-forehead (technical term) and nasal cannulas designed to register how much sleeping and how much breathing the victim — uh, patient — is doing. The first clue on whether I passed the snooze test came in the form of a phone call from the apnea doc’s assistant.

“The doctor wanted me to call you and tell you not to sleep on your back until we can get you fitted with a machine,” she said.

All righty, then. So I flunked? When you stop breathing 47 times an hour, that is, indeed, considered a fail. “Urgent setup,” the doctor’s office scribbled on the order to the company providing the CPAP — continuous positive airway pressure — machine to push air into the lungs.

This obstructive sleep apnea condition is quite common but insidious. The most prevalent sort occurs when the soft tissue collapses at the back of the throat, slamming shut the sleeper’s airway. Typically, the brain arouses the sleeper with a pointed instruction to keep breathing.

Left untreated, it can shorten life. Among the consequences it helps bring on: high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, car wrecks caused by falling asleep at the wheel and memory loss. Or it can kill, as in the case of 60-year-old actress Carrie Fischer of “Star Wars” fame. Her death certificate states she died of sleep apnea related to heart disease.

Sleep apnea is more common among men than women, especially African-American men and Hispanic men, and those who are overweight and over 40. Major symptom: Loud snoring. Sleep apnea affects more than 18 million Americans, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

So, now I am equipped with a device called a DreamStation, whose cheerful marketing line is “Experience the Dream.” Who are these people kidding?

Here at the Ritchie Resort and Sunshine Sanatorium we’re in the midst of the two-week period allotted to become accustomed to sleeping in what amounts to a gas mask from 1917 held in place with a Velcro harness. Surprisingly, that’s been no problem, but this diligent little machine spends all night pumping forced air into my stomach, resulting in great bursts of it departing in the morning from places a person would not anticipate. This process is only slightly more dignified than childbirth.

This condition isn’t even mentioned in literature by the manufacturers of the Dream baby. That’s annoying, but we’re trying to think positive thoughts as the flier about the device advises — one must remember that life will improve and concentrate on making it work.

Meanwhile, this user has come up with a creative fix for the problem. The machine has a container into which one daily pours distilled water so an attached humidifier can keep air warm and moist, allowing the sleeper to wake without a dry mouth.

Wonderful! So considerate of the maker!

Surely, however, the DreamStation maker will object to the Ritchie solution, so more thought may be in order. On the other hand, this user’s nocturnal musings about the machine would be far more kindly if the humidifier were filled nightly with Cabernet.

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