This year, new government health regulations take effect for commercial drivers, including sleep apnea testing. Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder where the sleeper’s breathing becomes very shallow or can stop altogether at intervals thoughout the night. It occurs when the muscles at the back of your throat relax which causes your airway to narrow or close when you breathe in. Many people never realize that they have the condition.
“Sleep apnea is no joke,” says Fleet Safety and Training Supervisor Don Frazier who was diagnosed with the disorder two years ago. It was Don’s wife Audrey who convinced him something was wrong. “She told me that I just didn’t seem like myself. I was moody and irritable, I would drowse off whenever I sat down during the day, and I would have these breaks in my breathing during the night. My doctor recommended a sleep test where I was hooked up to a machine at night and it would track my breathing.”
When the doctor looked at Don’s sleep report, he was concerned. He told Don he had one of the worst cases of sleep apnea he had seen. His rating was 60.
“I was shocked,” Don admits. “I asked him if that meant my breathing had stopped 60 times during the night. He shook his head and told me that my breathing had stopped 60 times in an hour. I was a very high risk for a heart attack.”
The doctor confided to Don that he himself had sleep apnea and explained that it was a managable condition. He immediately had Don begin using a CPAP machine at night when he slept. The machine is about the size of an office phone. It pulls air from the room and pumps it directly into the nostrils. The sleeper may use either a clear mask or nose tubes, whichever is more comfortable.
Right away, both Don and his wife noticed a difference. His moodiness fell away, his mind felt more alert and active, his blood pressure went down, and he woke each morning feeling completely rested and ready to tackle the day.
Now when he goes in for a checkup, the CPAP machine downloads his sleep pattern information to a plastic swipe card. The doctor can read the report from the card which also tells him how frequently the machine has been used. Don must use the machine at least 70% of the time in order to pass his physical.
Does it make things awkward when you’re sharing a bed with a spouse? Don shakes his head. “Actually, no. I’m a lot easier to live with now. Audrey is also sleeping better because she no longer wakes up constantly during the night worried because my breathing had stopped. We joke around a lot too. When I put on the mask I can flirt with her in my Darth Vader voice.” He grins.
Don believes that the new DOT health regulations may help a lot of coach operators who don’t realize they have sleep apnea. “It was a life-changer for me,” says Don. “I feel like a whole new person. I know that a lot of operators are concerned about these new licensing regulations, but sleep apnea testing is really a good precaution that can actually save your life.”
Juno Kughler Carlson