Before he retired, Steven, 65, had been a high-powered salesman and the single father of three boys. When his head hit the pillow at night, instead of drifting off to sleep, he found his mind racing – going over conversations he had had at work, thinking about his kids, planning, reviewing, contemplating. He didn’t feel rested for a day.
In 2001, at his mother’s memorial, Steven re-met Wendy Fink-Webber, a woman he knew when he was 15 and she was 12. They began dating and eventually married. Soon Wendy noticed Steven had another sleep issue: snoring.
It wasn’t the first time Steven had been told that he snored, but Wendy suggested the problem was more than merely irritating.
“She’s very smart. She said, ‘You have sleep apnea,” Steven says. “I was in denial.”
At his wife’s urging, Steven saw his Newport Family Medicine doctor who referred him to The Judy & Richard Voltmer Sleep Center at Hoag. When he talks about it now, his tone is positively reverential.
“It changed my life,” Steven says. “I tell any and all people I know who have difficulty sleeping to come to Voltmer at Hoag.”
During an overnight sleep study at the center, Steven was outfitted with 18 electrodes that monitored his heart rhythm and rate, eye movements, muscle activity, breathing, leg movements, and blood oxygen levels. Within a few hours, it became apparent that Steven did, indeed, suffer from sleep apnea.
“At about 11 p.m., the technician came back in and put a CPAP – constant, positive airway pressure – mask over my nose,” Steven says. “I had quit breathing.”
As with most sleep apnea patients, Steven’s esophagus collapses during the night, obstructing his breathing for periods of seconds to minutes at a time. Snoring is the body’s way of catching its breath.
During breaks in breathing, a person is robbed of oxygen, which affects their cognitive function. The periods of shallow or no breath also cause a person with sleep apnea to move out of deep sleep and into light sleep, resulting in a poor quality of sleep that leaves them tired the next day. It’s a problem Steven now realizes he developed in his 30s, in addition to his “racing mind.”
By introducing constant air pressure, the CPAP machine increases air pressure in Steven’s throat to prevent his airway from collapsing during sleep. This allows Steven to sleep through the night and move through the regular sleep cycles his brain needs to feel rested the next day.
When he left the center, Steven knew he’d be going home with a CPAP machine, and he felt a bit ambivalent.
“I was embarrassed to wear the mask to bed with Wendy,” he says. “I felt like Darth Vader.”
By the fourth or fifth night, however, Steven made a joke of his new Dark Side of the Force technology, pulling his mask on and off his face so that it made a “whoosh” sound and then paraphrasing the famous Darth Vader line: “Commander, tear this ship apart until you’ve found those plans, and bring me those passengers. I want them alive!”
Steven and Wendy laughed about it, and the awkwardness was gone.
In fact, he became such a self-described “evangelist” about the CPAP machine, the former salesman sought out the manufacturer and offered to come out of retirement on the company’s behalf. The manufacturer didn’t have a job for him, but he enthusiastically talks up the machine and The Voltmer Sleep Center all the same.
“If you really want to change your life, and you really want to take positive steps, go to the Voltmer Center,” he says. “They’re great.”
In addition to the CPAP machine, specialists at the Voltmer Center outfitted Steven with a set of tools to help calm his mind and prepare his body for bed. In a series of six classes at the center, Steven learned the basics of “sleep hygiene,” methods, routines and rules to help people who have trouble sleeping.
Steven says that not everyone in the classes had sleep apnea, but everyone had trouble getting the right amount of shut-eye. Their instructor gave them several tips and techniques including rules about avoiding alcohol for three hours before bed and TV or electronic devices for one hour before bed. She taught them to maintain regular bed and wake times and gave them a meditative mantra to use at bedtime.
The combination of sleep hygiene and the CPAP machine has allowed Steven to start getting good quality sleep and feeling rested for the first time in 30 years.
“Before I started using the CPAP machine, dragging myself out of bed in the morning was very hard. Obviously I had slept poorly, and after breakfast I was really ready to go back to bed,” he says. “The CPAP changed that situation; I feel good almost every day.”
Sleeping 6 ½ – 8 hours a night on average, Steven says his thinking is sharper, his mood is better and his body feels healthier than ever before. But the truly happy one? According to Steven, it’s Wendy.
“Now she can get a good night’s sleep, too.”