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Tualatin hospital helps strugglers find sound sleep

Sleep apnea can lead to myriad other health issues, and often goes undiagnosed

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Physician Jody Tate talks about the various techniques that the Legacy hospitals use to help diagnose and cure sleep disorders.Every night, John Severns would go to sleep, and every night, he would wake up 34 times an hour.

He’d stop breathing, so his body would kick into survival mode and take him out of deep sleep in order to regain his oxygen flow. This pattern was established for years and obvious enough that his wife was in the habit of leaning over him throughout the night to make sure he hadn’t stopped breathing for real.

“Then I’d start in again, or she’d elbow me, and I’d start in again. So she’d been worried about it for quite some time,” the Woodburn resident said. “It was two years ago in a hospital where a doctor told me, ‘You need to address this.’”

After being bucked off and stepped on by a horse while riding the Pacific Crest Trail, Severns was admitted to a California hospital for a week, while doctors monitored him to make sure he wouldn’t have kidney failure. During this time, hospital staff would rush into his room during the night as his oxygen levels dropped. Of course, they raised again. And dropped again. And raised again.

The suspected cause was sleep apnea, but Severns didn’t want to hear it. It would be a year-and-a-half before emergency gallbladder surgery at Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center would lead another doctor to bring it up again. Severns’ anesthesiologist told him that during surgery, he had more trouble than usual maintaining safe oxygen levels, and that it was really time for a diagnosis and treatment to be sought. Still hesitant, but at the insistence of his wife, Severns complied.

“I was really reluctant to do anything about it,” the 68-year-old said before running through a list of his common reactions. “Typical, hard headed, old school, you live through it, you just do it. You don’t worry about it, things happen.”

But, after the recommendations of two doctors and his wife could no longer be ignored, Severns discussed the issue with his primary care doctor who referred him to Jody Tate, director of Sleep Services at Meridian Park Sleep Center in Tualatin. Tate became interested in the brain and sleep after medical school, and devoted a fellowship to learning more about it before she landed at Meridian Park a year ago. After spending time working in a cardiac intensive care unit, Tate realized it was likely many of her heart attack patients actually suffered from sleep apnea, which had it been diagnosed and treated, might have prevented the heart attack.

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Physician Jody Tate shows electrodes that are affixed to the sleep disorder patient at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital.“It got me just really interested in what happens when we breathe and when we go to sleep,” she said. “I think that a lot of us just sort of know what our normal is, and we assume that’s everybody’s normal; that if you only get a couple hours of sleep every night and you wake up multiple times, ‘Well, probably everyone does that and everyone feels tired during the day.’ But I mean, it’s not true.”

Though varying severities of sleep apnea exist, all have the ability of leading to severe health problems. Aside from being chronically tired and suffering from the need to take too many naps or falling asleep at the wheel, untreated sleep apnea can ultimately lead to heart attack, stroke or even sudden death.

“When people go to sleep, all of the muscles naturally relax, including the muscles of your tongue and throat,” Tate said. “For people who have sleep apnea, everything relaxes so much that your muscles close off.

“It puts a lot of stress on your heart, and it puts your heart into these funny rhythms when your airways close. Your brain will wake you up enough to open your airway again. But typically, people don’t wake up enough to create a memory of the event, it’s just enough to get them out of deep sleep.”

This is exactly what’d been happening to Severns all those nights his wife worried he’d stopped breathing. After consulting with Tate and participating in a sleep study at Meridian Park’s Sleep Center, Severns learned what all the doctors had been trying to tell him before was true. For the past two months, he’s slept with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which provides constant airflow through a face mask, making sure his airways stay open. Other common treatment options include weight loss and a dental device that refigures airways, but these weren’t ideal for Severns.

“Believe me, after my first night, very first night with this thing, I woke up the next morning with renewed energy. I couldn’t believe the difference,” he said. “(Before), I just thought, ‘I’m sleeping seven to eight hours.’ (But) I’d wake up, and I hadn’t slept, really. I was getting used to that.”

Traditionally a loud snorer, Severns’ snores are gone along with his chronic exhaustion. Even more, having had high blood pressure for years, his last two doctor visits since using CPAP have shown his blood pressure is lower than any other time in recent memory.

“It’s just been wonderful. Whatever minor, and I do mean minor, discomfort from wearing this headgear thing and this mask — the refreshment of being able to have energy and feel good after waking up — the benefit is so much greater than any minor, minor discomfort,” Severns said. “I’ve been to three different states. I’ve been on fishing trips, and I take this thing with me wherever I go.

“As long as you can find power some place, you can plug it in and utilize it. I wouldn’t go anywhere without it.”

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