Simple sleep study changes Searsport man's life

Feb 13, 2013
Sleep technologist Sarah Zurek, BS, RRT, RPSGT, fits Larry with a small mask. His sleep study showed he would stop breathing more than 20 times an hour.

Searsport — As far as Larry Lewis, 46, of Searsport is concerned, having a sleep study gave him his life back. And he wishes now that he had listened to his wife and had it months before.

When he finally consented to have a sleep study, Larry was amazed to learn that he would stop breathing, wake up, and have to catch his breath more than 20 times an hour. And each time, his heart rate soared.

“I quit breathing, I don’t know how many times a night. It’s unbelievable what that does to you,” he says.

Waking up that many times meant Larry was never reaching the healthy stage of sleep and his brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen at night. The diagnosis was clinically termed obstructive sleep apnea. The key to dealing with it is to wear a mask at night that pumps air into his nose. Larry tried six different masks but he couldn’t tolerate having his face covered. Finally, he discovered one with small plastic pillows that sit at the entrance of his nose.

The first night he slept with it, he slept so soundly that he jumped out of bed at 4:30 a.m., went for a long walk with his dog, did some grocery shopping, and then returned home and cooked breakfast, all before 6:30 a.m.

“I got my life back!” he said. “It had probably been eight, ten, or eleven years since I had had a good night’s sleep.

Larry even lost five pounds in the first couple of weeks of using positive airway pressure. The small machine, he now has in his home, gently blows air into his nose, preventing his airway from collapsing and creating an “air-stent.”

"I don’t know what to do with all my energy now. It’s really amazing," he said. "I can even tell jokes now. Every part of my body is doing better. It’s unbelievable."

According to research, sleep apnea affects more than 18 million adults. It involves the back of the throat relaxing and closing down. The individual suddenly can’t breath and his oxygen levels plummet and he gasps for air (and usually wakes up). When the patient goes back to sleep, he returns to stage 1 sleep, which is a light sleep. Then the cycle starts again but is interrupted by the airway again narrowing. Only rarely can the patient reach stage 3, deep or healthy sleep, which is the most restful.

"When you feed your brain, it makes a world of difference," he said. "You can think, you can laugh, and you can remember. It’s so good to get a good night’s sleep."

Fragmented or disruptive sleep is bad for your entire system. It’s similar to the way starting and stopping in traffic is bad for a car’s engine. It’s more than just annoying. Research shows when you stop breathing during the night, it puts stresses on all parts of your body, especially the heart.

Sleep technologist Sarah Zurek, BS, RRT, RPSGT, says the problem with fragmented sleep is that “our bodies are like cell phones and we need to be charged up; we need to bathe every cell with fresh oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.” Not getting a good night’s sleep may make you sleepy during the day, affect your energy level, and blood pressure, can cause impaired memory and concentration, and affect your stress levels and heart conditions. A good night’s sleep — with the full periods of light and deep sleep — allows you to wake feeling refreshed and to enjoy a healthier life.

Before his sleep study, Larry Lewis was dealing with a number of medical issues, including diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, and a year before the sleep study, he had suffered a stroke.

He could deal with all that, but even before the stroke, he found he was tired all the time and was beginning to have memory difficulties. He didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.

He reached the point where he was afraid he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and he was terrified. “I was getting ready to give up,” he says. “It was so scary. I told my wife I couldn’t do this any more.”

He had tests to try to determine what was going on and eventually visited a specialist who studies behaviors directly related to brain functioning. Eventually, she said the memory and confusion problems suggested a sleep study should be conducted and, although he had resisted when his wife suggested a sleep study, this time he reluctantly agreed.

Now he says, “It totally changed my life.”

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