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Lost breath...lost time

18 January 2012

My friend and fellow Methodist minister, Allen Geeting, passed away on Dec. 29, 2011. He suffered cardiac arrest on Christmas Eve morning, after suffering respiratory arrest brought on by sleep apnea.

Al and I attended minister's meetings and church functions together, we laughed at each other's jokes, prayed together, and ate together, but I didn't know that Al was one of the millions of Americans who suffers from sleep apnea.

At least 1 in 10 people older than 65 has sleep apnea. Al was 73.

Common malady

According to the National Institutes of Health, "Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. These breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They often occur 5 to 30 times or more an hour. Typically, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound."

Pat Geeting, Al's wife of 52 years, said that this is the way it was for him. He was a snorer, and would stop breathing many times throughout the night.

"I knew Al had sleep apnea," Pat told me, "but I never knew that it could lead to sudden death. Not having that knowledge, that one little thing I missed, kept us from getting this checked out further. We may have had more time together had we been more informed."

Both Pat and Al suffered with sleep apnea, and both had been told by doctors to use a CPAP machine while they slept. But, they hadn't been faithful in using these devices.


A CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine is the most common treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea in adults.

The machine uses a mask that fits over the mouth and nose, or just over the nose. The machine gently blows air into the person's throat, and the air presses on the wall of the airway. The air pressure on the CPAP machine is adjusted so that it's just enough to stop the airways from becoming narrowed or blocked during sleep.

Some people who have sleep apnea may benefit from surgery.

Al had surgery to help with this disorder. Pat said that part of Al's soft palette and his tonsils and adenoids had been removed to try to correct the problem. The surgery may have helped Al for a time, but the problem continued.

Disrupted sleep

Sleep apnea usually is a chronic or ongoing condition that disrupts a person's sleep. Someone with sleep apnea will often move out of deep sleep and into light sleep when their breathing pauses or becomes shallow.

This results in poor sleep quality that makes the person tired during the day. Sleep apnea is thought to be one of the leading causes of excessive daytime sleepiness.

Millions of American adults have obstructive sleep apnea and have yet to be diagnosed. More than half of the people who have this condition are overweight.

Studies have shown that sleep apnea is more common in African Americans, Hispanics, and Pacific Islanders than in Caucasians.

Research has also found that if someone in your family has sleep apnea, you are more likely to develop it too.

Sleep apnea is a disorder that often goes undiagnosed. Doctors usually can't detect the condition during routine office visits; and there are no blood tests to check for the condition.

Hidden symptoms

Most people who have sleep apnea don't know they have it because it only occurs during sleep. A family member or someone you share the bedroom with may be the first to notice the signs of sleep apnea.

Research by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute says that one of the most common signs of obstructive sleep apnea is loud and chronic snoring. Pauses may occur in the snoring, and choking or gasping may follow the pauses.

The snoring usually is loudest when the individual is sleeping on their back; it may be less noisy when the person turns on their side. Snoring may not happen every night, but over time, the snoring may happen more often and get louder.

But, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.

The NHLBI also says, "Another common sign of sleep apnea is fighting sleepiness during the day, at work, or while driving. You may find yourself rapidly falling asleep during the quiet moments of the day when you're not active. Even if you don't have daytime sleepiness, talk with your doctor if you have problems breathing during sleep."

New outlook

Pat Geeting told me that she has realized how serious this disorder is since her husband's death. She knows that she needs to see her doctor right away and have her sleep apnea checked out more closely.

"I want others to know the seriousness of this condition," Pat said.

If you think you may have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor. If you think your spouse or someone you love may have sleep apnea, encourage them to see a physician.

This article was published in on 15 January 2012.

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