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Sleep apnea sufferers can finally get some rest

People with sleep apnea barely make it through the workday, them come home and sleep. They don't have the energy to go out at night to parties or movies or pursue any extracurricular activities. It's a pretty bad lifestyle.

The 34-year-old truck driver was constantly falling asleep - at church, at the movies, behind the wheel. "At the movies I'd doze in and out and get the elbow from the person next to me because of my loud snoring," said Vernon Johnson of Hanover Park. "The urge to sleep got so bad I'd nod while sitting at a red light and take my foot off the brake. I bumped into about 20 or 30 cars that way."

After a more serious vehicle accident at work, Johnson's employer, Chicago Roofing Supply, reassigned him to another job and encouraged him to find help. At the North Side Sleep Disorders Center, Johnson was diagnosed as having sleep apnea, a disorder in which a person repeatedly stops breathing for up to a minute. The disorder affects an estimated 1 out of 100 adults. Signs of sleep apnea include loud snoring, chronic daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, impaired memory and irritability.

Johnson underwent a polysomnograph - an all-night sleep study that measured his breathing, brain waves, heart activity, muscle movement and oxygen saturation. The test confirmed what Johnson had been unknowingly doing while he slept.

About 120 times each hour he quit breathing for as long as 20 seconds. During each of these apneic episodes, the soft tissue in the back of his throat collapsed, blocking his airway, while his chest pumped frantically up and down fighting for breath. Finally, he partially awoke, recruited the muscles to open his airway, gasped for breath and resumed sleeping with an explosive snore.

In the morning, after being jarred awake hundreds of times, Johnson awoke more tired than when he went to bed. "I was so tired in the morning that driving to work was a nightmare," he recalled. "I'd scream in the car to keep awake and pull over to the side of the road, get out and walk around for some air."

Treatment options for sleep apnea include surgery, wearing a mask at night that assists breathing or, in rare instances, medication.

Johnson opted for surgery and the procedure was performed at Illinois Masonic Hospital. Ironically, he was too tired to make the 7 a.m. surgery. To account for "pulling-off-the-road" time, Johnson left home at 4 a.m. "What should have been a one-hour drive took me five hours because I had to stop a bunch of times," he said. The surgery was rescheduled for later that day.

Now Johnson says he feels like a different person. "I feel alive and refreshed for the first time in years," he said. "My whole attitude at work has changed. And at night, I have so much energy it's difficult to go to bed."

Most sleep apneics are unaware they have a treatable problem and resist seeking medical help until they've fallen asleep behind the wheel at least once.

Next: Sleep apnea sufferers more prone to accidents