The Night I Stopped Breathing

(Originally published Mar. 14, 2007).

I spent all of last Saturday night at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. They tell me I stopped breathing. Not once, but many times.

In case you haven’t guessed, I spent the night tossing and turning, trying to sleep in the sleep laboratory. I arrived at 9:00 p.m. and, after asking my sleep history, a sleep technician used water-soluble glue which hardens to the consistency of cement to affix five electrodes onto my scalp (hair and all) for an EEG to measure brain waves. She also taped various wires, probes, sensors, etc. onto my legs, chest, fingers, and face to measure breathing rate and oxygen levels, tethered the whole mess of wires (8,529 in total) to an outlet of some sort, then told me to get some sleep. She would monitor me from the control center, and not to worry–almost everyone who goes through the sleep lab manages to fall asleep at some point.

Hah! Like, who could sleep, trussed up like a Christmas turkey and plugged into a socket?

By 2:30 a.m., I knew I hadn’t slept a wink. The technician entered my room and informed me I had, indeed, slept enough for her to diagnose sleep apnea (Greek, meaning ‘without breath’). I needed a special machine (called CPAP – Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) which would pump air down my gullet to keep the airway open. I agreed to add this contraption to the other indignities so that I wouldn’t need to spend another night in the lab while they calibrated the amount of air pressure I needed to maintain regular breathing.

From now on, I will need to use the CPAP machine. Yuk! The contraption looks sort of like a space mask with a long, flexible elephant trunk leading to a small box, which pumps air into the wearer’s nose or mouth or both–not too romantic a picture, I grant you, but a small price to pay for the benefits.

My husband took one look at my new night-time headgear and gasped, “*&%*! Do you really have to wear that thing to bed?”

“Thanks for the support,” I muttered.

“I hope it looks worse than it feels,” he replied.

It does. It’s like this. Normally, when we sleep, the muscles in our throat keep our airway open. In some people, the muscles relax to the point where the tissues of the throat collapse and obstruct the airway. This prevents air from entering and exiting the lungs. Sooner or later, the body will (hopefully) notice the lack of oxygen and shoot a jolt of adrenaline into the bloodstream, waking the person up to begin breathing again. The person probably won’t notice and will go back to sleep again. This can happen anywhere from ten to hundreds of times a night.

The result is that the person does not receive the deep REM sleep needed to feel rested, resulting in a sleep deficit that can lead to irritability and reactive depression (the sort of feeling associated with stress and personal loss). In addition, the cessation of normal breathing causes the body to ‘panic’ and struggle for air, significantly increasing blood pressure and heart rate. Periods of low blood oxygen impair the metabolic functioning of cells and can result in serious brain damage. Other long term side effects are hypertension, stroke, congestive heart failure, and stroke.

In my case, my husband told me several times that I stop breathing when I’m asleep. In fact, several times, I have awoken, pulse racing, heart pounding, convinced I was dying. Sometimes «ahem» I even snore (though I always claimed this was a vicious lie). Other symptoms include morning headaches and leg cramps. All these, I am told, along with excessive daytime sleepiness, mood swings, leg cramps, and many others, are not unusual for a person suffering from sleep apnea.

If anyone reading this even suspects they may have sleep apnea, I urge you to tell your doctor. To learn more about the condition, try some of these websites: or

I figure I will grow accustomed to the treatment. I doubt I would become accustomed to the results of a stroke.