As we pick up the exciting action after my last night in the Sleep Clinic, we find DrTom with a new device prescribed by the doctor to wear while sleeping. It is called a CPAP unit, and it looks like the apparatus one would use to breathe hostile air on a foreign planet (see photo). The electrical unit pumps air at a predetermined pressure into the mask, which keeps your airway from collapsing during sleep. DrTom suffers from a common ailment known as Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome. It involves a closure of the airway due to relaxed muscles that causes you to snore and to wake up gasping for air (although you seldom remember this), which prevents you from hitting the REM stage of sleep. It is during REM that the body obtains the restorative benefits of sleep. Prolonged periods of REM deprivation may be associated with hypertension and heart problems, and a lowered sexual drive, according to a major Harvard study. And, when you awake in the morning, you do not feel rested.
I've now worn the darn thing for three nights, and some changes are already apparent. My wife won't look at me when I'm sleeping now, and she won't kiss me on the cheek when she comes to bed for fear of getting her lips caught in the clips that hold the mask on my head. The dog no longer sleeps on the bed, but he stares at me a lot, even in the dark. I think he is afraid to come near me when I have it on. I was always fascinated with Star Wars and Star Trek and the idea of visiting other planets with strange creatures, like Pandora in Avatar. Already, my dreams are now focusing on that kind of adventure. I am sure this is because of the mind-set I have after donning my space mask as I climb into bed. When I breathe, I sound a bit like Darth Vader, so the ambiance in the dark bedroom is perfect for fantastical hallucination. Last night I dreamed I was Luke Skywalker's father.
When I travel with the CPAP unit, which fits in a case about the size of a shoe box, it has to be carried on an airplane. It is too sensitive to be checked. I have a letter from the sleep doctor that I show TSA when checking in that this is a medical device, and that it should not count as one of my carry-ons.
I can see it all now, because I had a similar situation years ago when traveling with my daughter and my infant granddaughter to California. Amy needed to take one of those mechanical breast pumps with her so that she could bottle milk for me to feed her daughter when I babysat on the trip. The device was about the size of a small sewing machine and it was fairly heavy; Amy carried her baby and I carried the thing. We were traveling soon after 9/11. When I tried to go through security, they called me aside, opened the machine and examined it with special swabs for evidence of explosives. After all, it did resemble a small atomic device that you see in the movies. When the test came back negative, I whispered to the young girl what the device was. She immediately turned to her colleague who was many yards away and yelled while laughing hysterically, "Mabel, it's a breast pump." At that instant, about 40 passengers about to board my flight turned and looked at the white-haired guy, standing there alone, holding what was obviously the object of everyone's attention. I don't embarrass easily, but that one made my ears glow. My daughter was one of those smiling broadly from across the hallway, but her mouth did not utter a word of explanation.
My wife, the former ER nurse, insists that I take care of myself and that I have all medical issues checked out by a physician. I am trying to be a good patient. So I will continue to wear the Vader mask, to dream of faraway places and adventures, to frighten the dog, and to deal with security issues at the airport. What worries me most is that I know from listening to them sleep at night that both my wife and my black lab also suffer from sleep apnea. It is just that when they are both fitted with their CPAP masks, there will not be enough electrical outlets near the bed to go around.