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David M. Raddock: CPAP Misery - Come hell or High Water

The apparatus was supposed to help with Sleep Apnea. That's what the experts at the clinic told him. And he was willing to try it. After all, sleep disorders can cause heart problems or brain dysfunctions. Using the CPAP - Continuous Positive Airway Pressure - device turned out not to be so easy, even conjuring up images of a recent visit to Auschwitz. He endured that, but it was a different matter when the CPAP started peeing on him

By David M. Raddock

I don't know about you, but I spent a good part of my life kicking back after a long day's work and dinner. Clutching a pillow, I'd let the day's anxieties drain from me by watching some television, pulling the covers up to me, and drifting off to sleep. Now, the ease of all that seems to be in the process of change. Months ago, I was diagnosed with a condition that I actually had to "Google" to find out about," sleep apnea (that's pronounced sleep-pap-neeah), a disorder of sleep caused by convoluted and obstructed breathing. Symptoms range from snoring to gasping and wheezing and obesity (with or without dreams of food).

One's mood can sink into staying in bed all day. Sleepanics can be doomed to forfeit almost everything that might require get-up-and-go, and yet, at the end of the day, feel they have taken amphetamines in their coffee. Finally, the incorrect sleeper might develop heart problems or brain dysfunction.

The physician determines the underlying cause of nighttime restlessness and snorting by empirical observation--an all-night sleep test in a "pretend bedroom" prepared at a hospital or sometimes in a motel that is accustomed to handling one-nighters.

It took me nearly a year to accept my internist's words that I might be a victim of this nighttime oxygen deficit. I had to resign myself to the fact that sleep might be the focus of my remaining life. I had been taught all my adult life that a surfeit of sleep could never kill you. Now, I had to accept the fact that dozing could do me in.

The downturn in my sleep and my treating it as a simple rest came with retirement. (That's when you truly become anxious about things. You fret about the moments being consumed if an operator or secretary puts you "on hold" or if an 'outsourced' answering service confuses Urdu with English. You find yourself counting the minutes as if the bell were about to toll for you.

My insurance was to cover the expenses of the sleep study, but only if it could be demonstrated by a tangle of wires, recording devices and video camera that I was taking in oxygen in the wrong way. Oddly, it was suggested that I take a couple sleeping pills before I began. If all my contorted movements indicated conclusively that I had sleep apnea, Medicare would pay. If I proved to be non-sleepapnic, I would be fully billed. This was the Catch-22 of the sleep study and one other reason why I demurred for so long.

Eventually, I relented and undertook the study. It was two or more weeks later that I received a facial mask, supposedly tailor-fitted for the distorted internal features that had obstructed my breathing. One component of the apparatus resembled an ipod stand or refurbished stereo tuner. Strapped to my head and face was the magic mask, one that seemed more modeled after Washington's face at Mount Rushmore than my own. The mask in fact was like a small container made of flimsy plastic that is used to carry out a pre-made salad at an airport. Fastening belts and snaps and gasping for breath, I was so nervous and overwrought that this contraption would have had to do some job on me to get me to sleep.

I had so much difficulty putting it on. (Of course, I occasionally have trouble buttoning my shirts so that the sides are even.) In this case, could I be unconsciously trying to resist wearing something that made me feel like Hannibal Lechter the rest of my somnolent life? The last time that I tried to don the mask and hook up to the machine, I nearly suffocated waiting for the air to flow. I wiped my forehead from sweat. I experienced a rhythmic, hammering sound, making me wonder if it was the "pap" in CPAP or two sea urchins going at 'it' in my tubing. I was told later that the whapping sound was the mask's response to my feeling anxious and uncomfortable.

As a last resort, trying my best, I threw my head back and took a deep breath of the pressured, inflow (actually gush) of air, shut my eyes and just hoped to "go under."

Hours passed. Suddenly I felt a draft in one ear. Flailing my arms in an aimless way, I tried to brush the tickling sensation off like a mosquito. The intensity increased. Now, I summoned the energy to remove the mask, but I forgot to shut the power on the machine. I groped around for the on-off button on top of the machine on the floor. By now, one side of the mask was off, leaving an indentation in the bridge of my nose (my god, did I really need another scar there?). The other half of the mask, still attached, was hanging over my ear. Eyes opening, I moved to set things right. My finger was just about to press the button when my face was sprayed with water. Taking a shower from water piped up from a humidifier on the floor was the last straw. The water had spurted forcefully inside the mask, bringing me to full consciousness, but I woke with an image of my trip to Auschwitz last spring-- the shower before gas!

Next, "water torture" came to mind. I was being overly dramatic. It wasn't "water torture." It was the machine peeing on me.

I made up my mind to take the CPAP back to the rental agency in the hospital. "Just bring the machine-part," the receptionist said. "You can keep the mask." I tossed it.

The author, a writer on international politics, most recently published "Finding My Way: An American Maverick in China."

This story was posted on 2013-03-31 09:48:31
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