Apparently, even when you’re asleep, you still need to breathe!

Ok, so a superhero by night might be a little bit of an overstatement, but I do have to don a mask now every time I go to sleep, so we figured we might as well have some fun with it. We have adopted the identity of Scuba Steve when I put the mask on, as it is a little bit like wearing some scuba gear, as there is a mask, and a supply of air being given to me via a hose, which is connected connected to a pump. When you’re scuba diving though, there is a valve that only allows the air through when you inhale, the CPAP units pump air constantly.

So, what is a CPAP unit? CPAP stands for “Continuous Positive Airway Pressure”, which means when the pump is turned on, it will continually pump air through the hose at a constant pressure, that the sleep technician will set for you based on the script from your specialist. There are lots of different CPAPs available, a huge variety of masks, from a tube that sits under your nostrils, to a full face mask, and a tube connecting the mask to the pump. The unit I am trialling currently also has a humidifier connected to it, so that as it is pumping the “moist” air down the tube, which just means that I don’t dry out so much through the night.

But Smudge, how come you’re so lucky that you have a machine to help you breathe at night? Well it would appear that I have Obstructive Sleep Apnea, a fancy way of saying when I sleep, I don’t breathe so well. I know that I have pretty much always snored, but I guess I have just gotten so used to my own snoring etc, that it does not really wake me anymore. When we did a cycling tour last year, some of the cabins we slept in had bunk beds, and apparently at night, I could get the whole bunk shaking with my snoring. Then I would stop. There would be no snoring, no breathing at all for almost a minute, and just when a bunkmate was thinking about dropping down on my chest to get me breathing again, I would start up! Ruined all his fun really I think!

My partner is an ICU nurse, who by chance happened to also be a respiratory nurse a few years ago in the UK. Seems she was not a fan of my snoring wither, and used to constantly be wearing ear plugs at night so she could sleep, and also staying awake at night watching me sleep, counting the time between breaths etc, so not really getting much sleep herself either. She had asked me to get a referral a few times to get it checked out, but being a bloke, I kept putting it off of course. I gave up in the end as you would expect, and got my referral to see a specialist at the Ashford Specialist Centre, who had a bit of a look over me, my general health, and also spoke to my partner to get her impressions. Based on my partners experience alone, this was enough for him to refer me to have a sleep study conducted.

The sleep study was certainly an experience. I lined up with about five other patients, each to be allocated a room for the night. The sleep technicians were very good, and explained everything they were doing whilst they were hooking me up. They had wires and electrodes taped all over my face, different spots on my head, heart rate monitor, leg monitors and so many other wires. Basically they needed to check what I did in my sleep, how often I wake up, stir, move, roll over, twitch, what my heart rate did, and what stages of sleep I got in to.

So many leads!!!

With sleep study results in hand, it was back to see the surgeon to find out what we were in for. Turns out he had good news and bad news for us, the bad news, my partner was right with her diagnosis, the good news, we could do something about it. My results showed that I had about 47 events an hour, and never reached REM stage sleep, the type of sleep we need to fully rest/recover, and to have dreams. I also did this wonderful thing called Cheyne Stokes breathing, which apparently is a breathing style associated with end of life! Wow, that was great to find out! It would seem that I have Obstructive Sleep Apnoea, which is a severe narrowing of the throat.

Part of the good news is that I could go to the States for surgery to fix the apnoea! Well, for the paltry sum of around $500,000, with a minimal chance of success I could! Apparently the surgery involves opening up your face so they can try to widen the airways! Harsh!

So the best course of action for me is the CPAP pump, which at $2,500 is a bargain in comparison to the US option. So, now knowing what I needed to do, it was off to Air Liquide to check out the range of CPAPs and masks! I asked for a Batman mask, but apparently no-one has thought of cornering the market yet for those! Instead, what got brought out was a range of silicon masks, and I got to try from a range of what they had in stock. It’s a pretty good setup really, I have hired a trial unit for about six months, during which time I can take the memory card back in to be read, as well as sampling varying masks before making my final purchase.

Yes, these are smart little units, they monitor all of your breathing when you are using the mask, the style of breathing, how many events you are having through the night, whether it was leaking, and how long I slept for. The reports they print out are pretty impressive, and certainly mean a lot to those who can understand them!

Sleep apnoea is a pretty serious ailment. I always thought that it was one of those things that only happened to the unfit, morbidly obese, or those with other chronic issues. Given that I gave up smoking around 2005, I really didn’t think it would be something I would suffer from. Sleep apnoea has been linked to depression, silent strokes and small brain lesions, abnormalities in the blood vessels, high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes, even sudden hearing loss. I am not sure though whether the hearing loss is a risk for me, or a risk for Sarah?

Some of the reading I have done on it suggests that even a month of obstructive sleep apnoea can lead to changes in cerebrovascular function, which can lead to strokes. There are some really scary stories about it, and how bad it really is for you.

I think it will take some getting used to, sleeping with a mask on, and having the constant air flow, but it certainly beats not doing anything about it! I am finding that I am sleeping better now, and I am actually having dreams again now, which seems really strange after so long without any!

If you think that you have sleep apnoea, or your partner is worried that you do, you really should get it checked out. The   choice of sleeping with a mask on, versus for example the risk of a heart that gets too floppy to pump the blood around, resulting in a stroke, is pretty easy really!

But for now, it’s time for me to go slip in to my Scuba Steve disguise and get some sleep.

Keep the rubber side down,


Scuba Steve – “I can’t smell your farts with my mask on!”