Sweeter Dreams

By Mindy Ratliff

Mindy Ratliff never dreamed that the process of preparing for surgery would lead to the discovery of a sleep disorder as well.

She was staying overnight in a Hood River hospital in advance of gallbladder surgery, just looking for a restful night’s sleep. It didn’t come, though she was none the wiser at the time. Hospital staff were though. During the night, they noticed Ratliff wasn’t breathing right while sleeping. The next morning, she was taken to a Portland hospital for her surgery and recovery and nurses there also noticed episodes where Ratliff breathing stopped.

“They said that I had stopped breathing quite a few times, so it would be a good idea to check into it. I’m glad I did,” she says.

Ratliff turned to the sleep disorder specialists at MCMC’s Center for Sleep Medicine. After one overnight stay, she learned she was one of the estimated 18 million adults in America who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that causes part of the airway to collapse during sleep when muscles are relaxed. This causes breathing to temporarily stop, often many times an hour.

Because the brain detects that breathing has stopped and disturbs the sleeping individual to resume breathing many people with apnea, like Ratliff, are completely aware these nighttime symptoms are occurring.

That changed after Ratliff’s stay in MCMC’s Sleep Center, where patients with a range of sleep-related disorders have been diagnosed and subsequently found relief. Besides sleep apnea, patients are seen with a range of other sleep-related conditions, including restless leg syndrome, insomnia, narcolepsy and parasomnia.

In an average evaluation, MCMC’s sleep specialists attach small electrodes and sensors to different parts of the patient’s body to gather data while the person sleeps. Sensors are used to monitor vital signs such as brain waves, heart rate and oxygen readings. In Ratliff’s case, the oxygen readings were particularly important, because they showed how many times her breathing stopped during the night.

When Ratliff awoke in the Sleep Center she was shocked to discover her breathing had stopped 96 times in just one hour. The average person with sleep apnea stops breathing between 20 and 30 times an hour. Regardless of the number, any time an individual stops breathing it is obviously a cause for concern.

According to Carol Christiansen, director of MCMC’s Sleep Center, “If breathing stops repeatedly during the night, air can’t get to your lungs, resulting in lack of oxygen. The lack of oxygen and frequent awakenings have negative consequences for one’s health.”

If untreated the condition can lead to an array of health problems, including high blood pressure, arrhythmia, stroke and heart failure, according to the American Heart Association. After seeing the results of Ratliff’s sleep study, her physician, Dr. Tom Hodge, was ready to prescribe CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) therapy, the most common treatment for regulating a patient’s breathing patterns. A CPAP machine is a device that uses a hose and breathing mask that delivers constant air pressure through a patient’s airway so he or she can breathe normally while sleeping.

The first night Ratliff slept wearing the CPAP mask she breathed normally through the night. The next morning, she could instantly notice the difference the CPAP machine had made. “I guess it was just a little before six o’clock when I woke up the next morning and I just felt great – really, really good,” Ratliff recalls.

Ratliff says the quality of her life has changed dramatically since she began using the CPAP machine. “It’s just awesome,” she says. “You feel great the next day. You feel so refreshed, like you finally got enough sleep. I just feel like I really had a good rest, and I didn’t realize I was missing it before.”

Before her apnea was diagnosed, Ratliff says she would feel tired during the day, but “I just thought it was a normal thing, a part of getting older. I have two kids and they keep me going, so I don’t have time to worrying much about myself.”

Not being aware there is a problem is common among those with sleep apnea, Christensen says. “Many times patients don’t realize they are waking due to their obstructive sleep apnea. Their arousals may be only be seconds but constant. It’s quite often patients will be told by a spouse, family member, or friend that they have observed them stop breathing or that they snore excessively.”

Symptoms of sleep apnea include loud or frequent snoring, choking or gasping while sleeping, daytime tiredness and trouble sleeping.

After her experience, Ratliff encourages anyone who suspects they or a loved one has a sleep disorder to consider having an evaluation. “Anytime someone complains about being tired, I say, ‘Oh you should go have a sleep study done because it makes a world of difference!’”
Ratliff also had high praise for the MCMC Sleep Center staff and facility, which is located at Water’s Edge on The Dalles waterfront.

“It was so clean and very private; really a nice facility and a wonderful place to go,” she says. “They made me feel very welcome.”

Ratliff also was pleased to learned the sleep supplies she would need, including the CPAP machine, were conveniently available at the Sleep Solutions retail store, also at Water’s Edge.

“It was really convenient, because it’s all in one place and everybody there is so helpful in helping you get the right pieces,” she says. “Everything comes in different sizes, and they had me try everything on to make sure it fits well. They’re very thorough and very positive, and they’re very good at explaining things in layman’s terms for me to understand what was going on.”

The Sleep Center at Mid-Columbia Medical Center encourages anyone with concerns about a possible sleep disorder to consult their primary care professional or call the center at 541.296.7724. Patients may be referred for a sleep study by a physician, but self-referrals are also welcome.