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Restful Nights, Better Days

Posted on October 1, 2020 in Patient Stories

FS Regional Sleep Center Helps Patient Stop Snoring and Improve Quality of Life 

Debbie Bullen, 66, and her husband Keith retired from their Claiborne County machine shop business back in 2012. But they didn’t leave noise behind them, at least not until recently. The noise wasn’t from machines though – it was from Bullen’s snoring.

Debbie Bullen with her dog

“My husband kept telling me that I was snoring and it really bothered him – he said sometimes I would actually gasp for breath,” she said. For a couple of years, Keith even wore ear plugs. “I said, ‘Is it really THAT bad?’ I’d have spells when I’d just get up and go in the guest bedroom to sleep. It was just stress on both of us.”

At first, Bullen found her snoring to be mostly embarrassing. “We go camping in our motor home a lot, and I also go on short trips with friends. It’d be three or four girls in the hotel room and I would always lie awake and be afraid to go to sleep. I got really self-conscious about it – I didn’t want to snore and keep them awake.”

Eventually, though, Bullen began to connect the dots between her snoring and more serious issues.

“My mom started having some health problems and I started going to her house once a week. She’s two hours away – I would drive down and back the same day – and when I started traveling, I would get so sleepy I could hardly hold my eyes open. I really panicked about it sometimes. I got really scared of falling asleep while I was driving.”

Bullen also was having headaches, and thought at first they were stress-related. “Five or six days out of the week, I would have to take something for a headache,” she said. “Then, when I would get in my recliner, if I would start to fall asleep a sound would come out of my throat and wake me up. I thought, ‘Gosh, I guess I AM snoring, or something’s going on!’”

Her symptoms were fairly typical of many people who have obstructive sleep apnea, according to Scott Vogt, manager of neurodiagnostics and the Sleep Disorders Center at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center. Sleep apnea is a condition in which airflow through the throat is interrupted, preventing deep and restful sleep.

“Sleep apnea can have many symptoms such as morning headaches, dry mouth, choking or gasping sounds, load or frequent snoring, daytime sleepiness and not feeling rested,” Vogt said. He added that a spouse is often the one who identifies a sleep problem because the spouse’s sleep is also interrupted by snoring or gasping. “And sleep apnea patients often feel embarrassed by or deny the problem,” he said.

Debbie and Keith Bullen on the road

At her annual check-up, Bullen asked her physician, Brent Neal, MD, of Claiborne Primary Care, about a sleep study. He referred her to the Sleep Disorders Center at Fort Sanders Regional.

On the evening of her sleep study, Bullen said, “I didn’t have any idea what to expect. I had been awake all night the night before the study because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sleep there. But I went right to sleep. The technologist came in at midnight and put a mask on me, and I went back to sleep.”

Bullen’s study is described as a “split study,” where a portion of the study is diagnostic and a portion is therapeutic. The first part of Bullen’s study confirmed sleep apnea, with a frequency of episodes as high as 10 per hour.

The most common treatment for sleep apnea is a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine, which uses air pressure to keep the airway open. Once Bullen donned a CPAP mask midway through her sleep study, the frequency of her apnea episodes dropped to less than one per hour.

At her follow-up appointment, Bullen was prescribed a CPAP machine of her own. When she picked up the device, she was pleased at how compact it was. “It wasn’t like all the wires I had at the Sleep Disorders Center – it was just one little hose. I couldn’t wait to get home and get it hooked up,”

That night, she slept deeply. “My husband couldn’t believe it – he said it was the best night’s sleep HE had in a long time, and I said, ‘evidently it was for me, too!’

Bullen said using a CPAP has also made a difference in the quality of her waking hours. “I don’t even get sleepy when I drive to see my mom. I haven’t hardly had a headache at all since I got it,” she said. She called her experience at Fort Sanders Regional’s Sleep Disorders Center and her CPAP “life-changing.” “I tell all my friends about it – I sleep so much better now. It’s made such a difference!”