Grateful Patient Works to "Pay it Forward"

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Rick Gonzalez spent his 50th birthday at a Hoag community event, sharing the details of his most recent outpatient surgical procedure.

A woman in the audience approached him afterwards with understandable skepticism. “Are you on Hoag’s payroll?” she asked him.

When the retired peace officer told her that he was not, the woman took his hand and wouldn’t let it go. “You came on your 50th birthday just to talk to us?” she said. “God bless you. Thank you so much for doing this.”

Gratitude surrounds Rick these days. After more than 20 years of suffering from severe obstructive sleep apnea, he is finally getting regular, high-quality sleep thanks to Inspire, an innovative procedure that few hospitals offer and very few patients know exist.

The change in his quality of life is so profound, Rick said, he doesn’t pass up an opportunity to share his story with anyone who might benefit. Even on his birthday.

“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “Any good I can do to pay it forward is worth it.”

The FDA-approved Inspire therapy is a small, fully implantable system that continuously monitors breathing patterns during sleep. Working like “a pacemaker for your tongue,” the system delivers mild pulsations to stimulate airway muscles and help patients to breath at night. Designed to work with the body’s anatomy, the therapy does not require a mask or any oral appliance, making it a markedly easier and more effective treatment for many people than current standard therapies.

For Rick, the procedure offered at Hoag has completely changed his life. Even as a child, Rick would come home from school exhausted and fall asleep in the living room while he tried to do his homework. Fatigue dogged him constantly, becoming a normal part of his life. Then one day in his late 20s, Rick fell asleep behind the wheel and woke up in a field, his car flipped onto its side.

“I realized something’s wrong here,” he said.

Following a sleep study, Rick was diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that effects more than 25 million adults in the U.S. The muscles in the back of the throat relax too much during sleep, interfering with breathing. The impaired breathing triggers the brain to wake the person up, often multiple times a night. These interruptions are so brief, the person generally doesn’t remember them, but over time they add up to chronic loss of sleep.

For 20 years, Rick and his doctors tried everything to get his sleep apnea under control. He underwent six surgeries, including two to correct a deviated septum, a tonsillectomy and a tongue reduction. He was fitted for continuous positive airway pressure therapy (CPAP), which involves wearing a mask that delivers air at a high enough pressure to keep the upper airway passages open during sleep. Unfortunately that didn’t completely address Rick’s medical needs.

As soon as Rick heard about Inspire, he began researching it, going so far as to watch the medical tutorials doctors use to learn how to implant the device. He knew this was the right procedure for him, and his doctors agreed. Unfortunately, he had considerable difficulty securing approval from his insurance company to undergo this very new treatment.

Rick said his doctors at Hoag worked tirelessly to advocate for him. He particularly credits his primary care physician Danny Vo, M.D., who “went above and beyond” to convince his insurance company to approve the procedure.

“He is really someone who cares about his patients, and I can’t say enough about how much he did for me,” Rick said.

Once he was approved to receive the therapy, Rick met with Dr. Carly Schrage, an otolaryngologist who has been trained to offer this cutting-edge treatment.

“Dr. Schrage was like a godsend to me, someone who could finally provide me with the help that I so desperately needed,” Rick said. “After my first consultation with Dr. Schrage, I knew she was the right medical professional for me.”

Rick’s gratitude extends to the entire Hoag medical team and to Inspire representative Aaron Hauser, who worked closely with Dr. Schrage on Rick’s case.

“Aaron went above and beyond for me; he was there every step of the way. We have remained friends ever since,” said Rick.

Recovery following the procedure took about a month, but right away Rick noticed a change. He began to wake up feeling refreshed. His memory improved, and even his cognitive abilities seemed to sharpen. His family noticed, too.

“I’m less irritated and fatigued,” he said. “I wake up ready to start my day with a new outlook on life,”

That outlook is decidedly positive.

“I feel so much better,” he said. “The doctors at Hoag – everyone, Dr. Vo, Dr. Schrage, Dr. Jay Puangco, who conducts the sleep studies [at the Voltmer Sleep Center] – they all deserve so much credit. I tell everybody because if my story can help others, that’s great. This has been a life-changing experience.”