Sleep safely

Untreated sleep apnea can have serious health consequences.
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Chris Morgan, M.D., medical director for Mercy Health Saint Mary's Sleep Center, said obstructive sleep apnea is a serious condition that affects about 25% of adults between the ages of 30 and 70. Photo by iStock

On their first date, time accelerated for John and Mary Schaff. They knew they were meant to be.

“We talked so long that by the time I looked around, the wait staff was wiping down tables and turning over chairs,” Mary said. “Even after decades of marriage, he would still call me from work five or six times a day just to chat.”

But the phone calls abruptly ended on April 6, 2015. Forever.

Mary was visiting their daughter in Colorado. She called John that morning to check in. No answer. No worries. She thought he probably was out walking the dog.

She phoned again later. Still no answer.

“That’s when I called our son to go and check on his father,” Mary said.

That’s when her life changed forever. Because John’s had ended.

Mary and John Schaff shared many happy years before his passing due to sleep apnea-related complications. Courtesy Mary Schaff

“John had died earlier that morning,” she said. “The EMTs told us that he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest, but only after letting the dog out, making breakfast and cleaning up the dishes. His death was the result of complications related to untreated sleep apnea. He was 57 years old and healthy in every other way. The only thing worse than losing John is knowing that had he been diagnosed sooner and gotten the help he needed, his untimely death likely could have been prevented.”

Chris Morgan, M.D., medical director for Mercy Health Saint Mary’s Sleep Center, said obstructive sleep apnea is a serious condition that affects about 25% of adults between the ages of 30 and 70. The scary part? Up to 90% of people are undiagnosed, according to Morgan.

“Patients may experience excessive daytime sleepiness, snoring, stopping breathing during sleep, insomnia, excessive nighttime urination, awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat, morning headache, high blood pressure and nighttime sweating,” he said.

Risk factors include obesity, family history, high blood pressure, heart or lung disease, diabetes and stroke.

Moderate cases may improve by avoiding alcohol and sedating medications at bedtime, according to Morgan.

The scary part? Up to 90% of people are undiagnosed.
Chris Morgan, M.D.

Severe cases may require a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine or surgical intervention.

“Most treatments for sleep apnea are generally noninvasive and safe,” Morgan said. “There are many options for treating sleep apnea now, so please discuss symptoms with your doctor to keep yourself healthy.”

Don’t wait if you or your spouse sense something is off. Sleep apnea risk increases with age.

Mary suspected something, beginning when John was in his early 40s.

“John had always snored, but it never alarmed me, until one day when his snoring intensified and there was an abrupt silence from his side of the bed,” she said. “I counted the seconds ticking by. Alarmed, I shouted, ‘John, wake up!’ Startled awake, he said, ‘What?’ I told him he was snoring and that he had stopped breathing. He reassured me he was fine as he rolled over and went back to sleep.”

Mary continued to express concerns. John downplayed them.

“As time went on, this scene became almost a nightly occurrence,” she said. “I wanted to believe John was right and that there was no reason to worry. When John went to his doctor, all the tests on his blood and heart came back normal. There was a disconnect between what he was experiencing while he was sleeping and his general good health.”

Eventually, John, like a certain Snow White dwarf, struggled to stay awake.

“As the years passed, John began having trouble staying awake during the day,” Mary said. “He started to fall asleep in church, watching TV or at his desk. I was startled the first time he dozed off at the wheel.”

John died two days before his scheduled sleep test at a local medical facility.

“I realize the test itself may not have saved his life, but it would have been a start,” Mary said. “It would have been the beginning of his using either a CPAP or BiPAP machine so he could breathe again, to be able to sleep deeply through the night and start to heal his heart. A new beginning of a life where he could lose the weight, stop feeling tired and meet his first grandchild — a baby girl born six months after his death. It might have even been the start of another three decades for us to be together … to continue talking about everything and nothing.”

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