ABILENE, Texas - With every visit to the Hendrick Medical Center sleep labs, William Holloway has to undergo a few indignities.
There's the required attire, first and foremost: a swarm of electrodes that attach to his skull, chin, abdomen and calves. Removing the adhesives after each session requires a healthy dose of rubbing alcohol, and even then they still tear the hairs out of his skin.
But he will gladly take the minor inconveniences of sleeping in a foreign bed, his body crisscrossed with wires, when faced with the alternative.
This is a man, after all, who spent half of his life unable to dream. His obstructive sleep apnea simply would not allow it. When Holloway drifted into sleep, the soft palate in the back of his mouth would relax to the point where it completely obstructed his airway. He'd snort back toward consciousness as his body fought for air, relax again, only to have the cycle repeat.
Sleep apnea, in that sense, really is the stuff of nightmares: it's one step removed from drowning in your own bed. The cumulative effects can range from increased blood pressure to heightened risks of congestive heart failure and stroke.
Despite the murky funk that he woke up in every day, and although he and his wife, Candice, soon were sleeping in opposite ends of their Houston home, Holloway didn't act to address the problem.
"I just assumed it was normal," Holloway said. "I thought everyone felt the same junky feeling I did. I never knew a good night's sleep or what I was missing."
But when he passed out after a two-mile run, something clearly was off. A round of tests later, he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and hooked up to a CPAP -- continuous positive airway pressure -- machine. Resembling a high-tech snorkel, a CPAP setup pumps air down a patient's throat to open the airway and allows the sleeper to breathe, even after they doze off.
It's a cumbersome nuisance at first -- try answering a late night phone call with one of those on, Holloway says -- but it quickly introduced Holloway to a world he had forgotten. He had his first dream since his childhood. Then there came the morning, when he woke up feeling actually awake and refreshed.
That epiphany happened about six years ago. Now 32, Holloway still attends sleep labs to make sure his condition isn't getting worse. During his recent visit to Hendrick, Holloway was under the care of Dr. Ted Dyer, a man who can just look at someone and size them up for potential sleep disorder risks.
Obesity is the top indicator for sleep apnea -- more fat means more potential for blocked breathing. But Dyer also pointed out things like the position of a person's chin, or the thickness of the tongue, or the shape of their neck as clues. All of that is inherited, which might explain why a guy of average build like Holloway can have such atrocious snoring.
"I come from a long line of snorers," Holloway said.
Once a subject has spent a night (or in this case, a day, since Holloway works nights) at the lab, sleep technicians have a look at all the measurements those electrodes were taking throughout the session. Sleep really is a full-body experience, so they have to look at everything: breathing, heart rate, brain function, eye movement, leg activity and more.
"You sleep with your brain, but the brain obviously tells your body to do a lot of things," Dyer said. "That's the restorative part of sleep."
Those readings get fed into a graphical interface made up of multicolored zigzag lines. Separated into 30-second chunks, these readings require an expert to translate them.
The technicians are searching this layout for "events," or instances where Holloway's breathing, heart rate or brain waves hiccupped. Everyone has these sorts of minor interruptions during the night -- Dyer said fewer than five per hour is normal. But for someone with sleep apnea or any of the other disorders the sleep lab treats, it's a constant parade of mishaps and crashes that prevent a peaceful night of rest.
For a sleep apnea sufferer, a CPAP machine remains the most clear-cut solution. There isn't yet a form of surgery that can consistently fix the structural issues behind apnea But even then, the machine is still a tentative setup, hence Holloway's regular hospital sleepovers.
"(CPAP) doesn't cure the problem, it just treats it," Dyer said. "I have a lot of patients ask me, 'How long do I have to wear this?' I say, 'Well, probably forever.'"
Even if it's his lifetime sentence, Holloway said the benefits make it well worth some minor discomfort.
"It's changed my entire state of mind, my attitude," Holloway said. "My wife says I'm a whole different person -- in a good way."
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