If you could have told me in my thirties that my father would die of ALS at the age of 69, I never would have believed you.
If anyone seemed like they could defy death, it was my dad. He was once one of the most celebrated radiologists in the United States. He taught at Harvard, wrote textbooks, and developed the Burhenne technique for removing gallstones.
By all external measures, my dad was an extremely fit and healthy man. He was a competitive downhill skier and accomplished mountaineer, and we summited several of North America’s tallest mountains together.
He was a tremendous athlete. But something, or multiple things, went very wrong and set off a chain of events in his body and brain.
Ever since he died in 1996, I have wondered how such a healthy man could have deteriorated in such a spectacular way. Sure, you might say it was genetics or just bad luck, but still I would wonder.
Over ten years later, our lives were changed forever when my wife was diagnosed with sleep apnea. That’s when I began learning everything I could about sleep disorders. I stumbled into a field called sleep medicine dentistry, where dentists treat sleep apnea, to help my wife when she couldn’t tolerate a breathing machine.
The more I learned, the more I would remember my dad. I would remember the nights we would sleep together in a tent while climbing a mountain when his loud snoring would keep me up. Having been his dentist, I remember seeing all of the signs of someone suffering sleep apnea with his teeth, tongue, and back of the throat—things we didn’t know back were the signs of someone suffering from sleep apnea.
Of course, I’ll never know for sure why my dad got so sick. But I do believe that if he could have known what we know now about sleeping better, he could have had a better chance.
I think about him all the time when I treat my patients and their sleep disorders.
I think about him when it’s inconvenient for me to deal with my sleep apnea when it’s hard to squeeze in an appointment with my sleep doctor or to spend the night away from home getting a follow-up sleep study, which I have to do every couple years for the rest of my life.
I think about him as I get older and hope to be around for my three daughters and their weddings, the birth of their children and one day being a grandfather myself.
I wish I had known how serious something like snoring or grinding your teeth was back in those days. I used to brush it off when my wife and daughters would tease me for my snoring in the car on family trips.
I used to subscribe to the old adage, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” I wanted to squeeze all I could out of life, and I used to think of sleep as something that was a necessary evil to get to the next day.
Our culture doesn’t give sleep much respect. We share YouTube videos of adorable snoring babies or a funny video of a wife videotaping her husband’s snoring. We fall asleep in bed with the blue light of our phones that throws off our circadian rhythms and reduce the amount of time we spend in deep stage sleep—the only stage where human growth hormone is produced and the brain is wiped clean of the “trash” produced during the day.
Sleep isn’t lazy. It isn’t unproductive. It isn’t “dead time.” Sleep is what protects us from illness, boosts our immune system, and repairs our bodies.
Beyond that, sleep makes us the emotionally available and patient spouses, partners, and fathers we all strive to be. My father’s love of the mountains lives on in me. I continue to take backpacking trips with my wife, friends, and daughters.
I still hear snoring in the tent, but now I know better than to brush it off. I don’t let my friends off the hook when I confront them about their snoring. I’ve helped my wife and one of my daughters get treated for their snoring.
I am deeply saddened that my dad never got help. I’ll always regret that I never thought to mention his snoring to him or push him to get help; after all, people with sleep apnea have a 20% shorter life expectancy on average. Even if treating his sleep apnea couldn’t have saved him, maybe he could have been around long enough to meet his third grandchild.
Perhaps you can’t regret something when you didn’t know any better at the time. Regardless, this is what drives me in my day-to-day work in treating sleep apnea. If you know someone who snores, tell them. It really could just save their life.
Photo: Flickr/ Daniel Foster