One of the benefits of writing about medical problems -- or issues, as the jargon has it -- is the likelihood of receiving e-mail messages from those with intense knowledge of the subject at hand. In my case the messages shared a dire theme: "Act now, or die tomorrow. If, of course, you are not already dead."
These warnings came after a column about a recent diagnosis of sleep apnea. Suddenly, life was animated by the possibility of death, perhaps that very night. As one who admires bluntness, the experience was gratifying. It is also true that those of us who suffer from hypochondria, slight or otherwise, are always glad to have our suspicions confirmed.
And so, to those correspondents, if they are still alive, a big thank you. Their warnings were heeded. Instead of going grave shopping, I went for the cure. It seemed the better option. One would hate after all to bow out at this time of national emergency, cultural fervor, and massive credit card debt.
This was surely not a case of misdiagnosis. The initial doctor, having learned (from the wife) that I stopped breathing between stupendously loud bouts of snoring, suggested a "sleep study," in which the head and chest were covered with sensing devices. The patient was placed in a dark room and after a while fell off to sleep, during which time evidence was collected. The results were stark. In the first hour the patient awoke 29 times or so gasping for air, then fell immediately back to sleep. A simple mathematical calculation suggested that in the past five or seven years, I had slept no longer than three minutes at a time.
"No wonder you're such a crank," the wife purred. It was worse than that. She banished me from the marriage chamber for violating a noise ordinance of singularly unilateral origins. I might as well have entered the priesthood (old version).
The doctor, in the typically reassuring tones, indicated a massive stroke and/or career-threatening heart attack if nothing were done. Messages from readers echoed the paid advice. One reported that a third of traffic accidents may be caused by people with sleep disorders, far higher than the number allegedly caused by immoderate drinking. Others discussed the heart attack problem and stroke options. There eventually came a note about an upstate teenager who died from symptoms related to sleep deprivation; his parents said he had a bad case of apnea but declined treatment.
Truly, it was all enough to take the breath away. So Doc, what are my options?
One is to have the nose bored out by either a knife or a laser beam. Option two is to have the throat bored out by lasers, which one professional advisor said may or may not work but would without a doubt provide the worst imaginable sore throat of about two weeks' duration. One can also have the doctors bombard the throat with radio waves that cause a tissue die-back, and no doubt a tremendous accompanying stench. An oral device of some kind is also a possibility -- it apparently forces the tongue forward, so that it does not slip back into the throat and cut off the air supply.
But the preferred cure is a device called the CPAP machine, and this was the chosen way. The CPAP is an air pump connected to a face mask by a plastic hose; the mask is strapped over the nose and when fully in place the patient bears a striking resemblance to an ant-eater. Air is forced into the lungs. In the process, the noggin is heavily pressurized, so if you open your mouth your unleash a great blast of wind. A patient may entertain himself by pressing the tongue against the top of the mouth at that moment, which creates loud staccato burst sounding like a machine gun.
There have been two chief results.
Number one, the machine works. After a few days, one gets accustomed -- for the most part -- to the feel of the mask and the slightly high-pitched hum of the machine. But even before that, just a few hours of uninterrupted sleep brings magical results. Deep Sleep -- Profound sleep -- is a golden sensation indeed, like meeting up with a long lost friend. Dreams become vibrant and meaningful. One night I slept so hard I suddenly found myself in the presence of Cleopatra. Despite what you might hear, she is a true ditz and ugly besides.
Four or five hours under the mask and you jump out of the bed as if on fire, though initial fears that feeling good would result in a feel-good sappiness have proved to be unfounded. The higher attitudes -- crankiness, cynicism, an enduring distrust of most warm-blooded life forms -- not only remain but also enjoy a new dynamism.
Yet there has been one disappointment. Hopes of a triumphal and permanent re-entry into the bridal chamber are yet to be realized. When the wife and visiting relatives saw the anteater in all his glory, they bombarded him with brutal snorts of laughter. This wasn't quite like kicking a cripple, but was close enough. In the few brief nights of co-habitation the mask slipped a bit, creating a sound, one was later told, highly reminiscent of an ascending jetliner.
Well, you can't have everything. And there's always Cleopatra.