Sunday, May 2, 2010

the harrowing tale of nick's adventures in sleep apnea

It's the beginning of May, as you might have noticed. The first of May finds me thinking not of maypoles and distress signals but instead of what Nick and I were up to two years ago at this time: recovering from Nick having a giant chunk of his head scooped out.

This is the story of Nick getting chopped and screwed. And being in T-Pain. Okay I'll stop

(Seriously though, if you're wondering, chopped and screwed actually refers to a method for remixing hip-hop songs. It's associated with Houston. And purple drank. So what could be more appropriate blog-readin' music for this story than hip-hop made by Texans on narcotics?

When Nick and I started dating in late 2005, we lived a maddening 1000 miles away from one another. Unable to bear the distance and the time apart, Nick used to fly to Austin or fly me to Atlanta every other weekend. Very early into these blissful weekends together, I started to notice something. Nick was an incredible snorer.

He had that classic log-sawin' open-mouthed snore that makes it impossible to sleep next to someone. Worse than that, he regularly stopped breathing and then vociferously woke himself up gasping for air. I used to lay awake at night and watch the man I was falling so deeply in love with just...stop breathing. The seconds that passed until his next breath lingered on and on like minutes or hours. Sometimes I wouldn't be able to stand it and I'd shake him awake until he sucked in a breath.

I told Nick I thought he had sleep apnea, which is basically when you stop breathing during the night. Grad school Katie was delighted to inform him that 'apnea' comes from the Greek ἄπνοια, like πνέειν (to breathe) plus an alpha privative. Nick was...somewhat less delighted.

When Nick unexpectedly moved to Austin in late 2006 and into my tiny apartment with me, the situation became a little more serious. Since my little apartment was basically just one room, there was nowhere to go to escape Nick's nightly snoring extravaganza. I bought the best earplugs I could find, which gave me some relief, but I still went to sleep every night worried that maybe Nick was going to stop breathing and never start again.

To Nick's everlasting credit, he did not wait very long before he did a sleep study. The results were sobering. Nick had sleep apnea--and how. He was basically not able to reach REM sleep at all because he stopped breathing and woke himself up approximately every six minutes. The longest period of time he went without breathing? 90 seconds. Hearing that made my stomach turn.

We had two options. Either Nick could wear a CPAP machine, which looks like this:

and sounds like this:


every night for the rest of his life or he could have surgery to take care of it.

Who likes getting cut into? Nick decided to give the CPAP a try.

The CPAP machine was a bust from the start. CPAP stands for 'continuous positive airway pressure' and basically it is supposed to keep your airways open by changing the pressure inside your blah blah basically it just blows air up your nose and down your throat all night. Nick was MISERABLE. Perhaps it wasn't calibrated right. He just never got comfortable with it on. It felt weird to have all that dry air circulating through his airways all night. Add to that the fact that the machine was kind of loud AND that I woke up every morning next to something that looked approximately like this:

and you can see why we were both pretty miserable about the CPAP from the get go. It wasn't long before Nick started making arrangements to have his sleep apnea taken care of surgically.

Nick scheduled his surgery for the end of April 2008. His wonderful mother Susie made plans to come down for a week to help me take care of her ailing son, and I made arrangements with the good folks at UT Press to work from home for a week so I could look after my ailing now-fiancé.

The docket for Nick's surgery was impressive. It started out sounding pretty minor--fix the deviated septum, remove the giant tonsils. But the second two items on the list sounded a lot worse. They were going to remove his uvula and part of his soft palate?

For those of you who were not paying close attention in anatomy class, here's a diagram of the back of the mouth:

everything in green? GONE.

I knew then that Nick and I would never have the his-and-hers uvula piercings I had always imagined...

I'm kidding, Mom! Photo via headovmetal's Flickr

When the day of the surgery came, I think I was more nervous than Nick and Susie put together. I cried when they wheeled him down to surgery. I couldn't concentrate on the manuscript I brought with me to copyedit in the waiting room. The whole day is a blur of daytime TV and vending machines.

Nick came through surgery beautifully. He was awake when they wheeled him back to his room, and he was able to write us little notes to tell us how he was and what he needed and mostly that he loved us a lot. The surgeon told Susie, "Ma'am, your son really knows how to grow some huge tonsils." We brought Nick presents and doted over him and spent all the time we could in the hospital with him over the next couple of days until he came home. One evening Susie caught me on my knees in the hospital's chapel with tears running down my face saying a quick thank you to The Powers That Be. She said it was the sweetest thing but maybe I was being a teeny bit dramatic.

And perhaps I was. But it was a pretty big deal, as far as I could tell! They really hollowed that boy out. The back of Nick's throat looked like nothing I had ever seen before. It's the shape of the inside of a cathedral or a marquise-cut diamond.

It's kind of beautiful.

Nick spent basically the next 8 days or so hopped up on the legal equivalent of purple drank, sleeping constantly and healing up beautifully, so Susie and I took advantage of that time to drink Coors Light and gossip and plant a beautiful little garden and have all kinds of soon-to-be mother-and-daughter-in-law adventures. My favorite moment was probably our catastrophic attempt at making homemade mashed potatoes in this tiny, useless device:

Soooo Nick healed up and Susie went home and we all lived happily ever after, right? Well, yes. Mostly.

Two weeks after the surgery, Nick seemed to have made a complete recovery. He was back at work and life was back to normal. It was a Thursday night and I was tutoring my beloved Gregory Mohan in Latin at a little Italian restaurant a few miles away from my apartment. We had just ordered our slices of pizza and were settling in for an afternoon of conjugating when my phone rang. It was Nick. I answered.

My fiancé screamed into the phone back at me. I'M BLEEDING! YOU HAVE TO COME HOME NOW! The urgency in his voice broke into a sob. THERE'S SO MUCH BLOOD.

As he's saying these words, I'm floating out of the door of the restaurant, my feet not touching the ground. I'm calling over my shoulder GREG CALL YOUR MOM TO COME GET YOU THERE'S AN EMERGENCY and I'm in my car driving home on two wheels. I'm calling an ambulance and then a few moments later I'm hearing the ambulance in the distance already on its way to him. It's funny how slow and clear everything seems in those moments of absolute and complete panic.

When I was just a few blocks from home I got caught at a red light. A huge pack of motorcyclists were taking up almost a block of space, loosely scattered across two lanes, blocking my way into a gas station parking lot where I could circumvent the light. I skidded to a stop behind them and layed on my horn. GET OUT OF THE F$%&ING WAY I screamed crazily out my open window, a bespectacled young woman with a car full of Latin books picking a fight with a motorcycle gang. Several of the bikers literally flicked their kickstands down and got off their bikes and started making towards me with venomous eyes. I did not know these things actually happened outside of S.E. Hinton novels and Michael Jackson videos but I did not have time to stick around and see if there was going to be any coordinated dancing. I leaned my body halfway out of my car and screamed with all of my might, my voice breaking, I AM HAVING A MEDICAL EMERGENCY PLEASE F$#*$ING MOVE SO I CAN PULL THROUGH THAT PARKING LOT The bikers wasted no time getting out of my crazed way. I honked and waved gratefully as I peeled through the parking lot towards home.

I got to our townhouse right as the ambulance was getting there to find Nick in the front yard with blood trickling out of his mouth and soaking his shirt, an impressive trail of blood leading back to our apartment. He was panicked but it was clear that the bleeding was slowing and the worst was over. I followed the ambulance to the hospital.

It turned out Nick had coughed and blown a suture in the back of his mouth, and a blood vessel had ruptured. When Nick called me, the blood was shooting out of his mouth in a spray. Later on I found that Nick had tried to clean up a lot of the blood in the bathroom so I wouldn't be frightened when I saw it, but it still looked like someone had taken a water balloon filled with blood and dropped it into the bathroom sink. It was like a crime scene. I'd find blood spatters in the house for months to come.

They had to do emergency cauterization on Nick's wounds that night to guarantee that the vessel wouldn't rupture again. More anesthesia, another night spent in the hospital. My dear friend Sam Hoekstra (now Hoffpaiur) came to the hospital in the middle of the night (on a work night!) to come and keep me company and distract me. I will never forget how kind she was and how much I appreciated it.

And THEN Nick healed up and everything was fine and we lived happily ever after. And Nick doesn't really snore anymore, and he definitely doesn't stop breathing during the night. So we're extra happy. The end.

Discussion Question:
What's the scariest phone call you've ever gotten?


  1. My fiance called me from work once and said "I had an accident, but I'm ok." In case you don't know, Naeole makes a living as a zip-line tour guide and spends the majority of his day dangling from a cable or standing on a tree platform 40 feet off the ground. Needless to say, the 'accidents' he could have had were numerous and all equally scary and instantly flooded my insecure worry-wart mind. I swear you could hear my heart beating in my hollow chest for at least a dozen blocks.

    Turns out he was doing some course maintenance and was zipping with a pole-saw in hand (YES REALLY) and smacked himself in the face with it. There was some swelling and blood but it really just looked like I decked him (which I wanted to do when I found out he was zipping with a POLE SAW.)

    I love your blog so much Katie Jane. Interesting, engaging, emotionally gripping and unpretentious.

    Also, your husband is a hero for not doing that Dude Thing where you tell them something is wrong and they ignore you and then later when something terrible happens you get all mad and cry and want to say 'I told you so' but it sorta wouldn't be appropriate but seriously if they had just freaking listened to you in the first place and what does he think you are, an idiot?

    Yeah, your husband is awesome :)

  2. Oh my gosh!!! I would have lost it on him haha :)

    Thank you so much for your kind words, Melody Ann! I am kind of experimenting with this whole blogging thing and I'm glad you're enjoying the results so far :)


  3. I once worked with a deaf girl. One day, a woman called and asked to talk to her. I explained that she couldn't be talked to, because she couldn't talk. The woman then told me that she (the deaf girl) needed to drive to the hospital right away because her father had had a heart attack. I, then, had to write this on a piece of paper and present it to my co-worker, and then listen to her cry and panic the way deaf people do, which is really something whole-heartedly saddening.

  4. Oh my gosh Meghan, that is the saddest thing :(

  5. This captured all of the right elements - you're such a good writer! Minus the emergency, it was one of the best times of my life - all of the juice and the doting and the codeine. Yesss

  6. I'm gonna get you back when we have babies! mwahahaha

  7. AWESOME Blog KJ. I have gotten a LOT of horrifying phone calls in my life...but for some stupid reason, this rather mundane one comes to mind: it's late at night a couple of weeks after I took the Latin Trans exam for the 2nd time. I get a call from Dave, who is in the Classics office, saying that there is a letter in my box. He asked if I wanted him to open it and read it to me (I said NO, natch) and I hopped on my trusty bike (the one that got stolen later) and rode into campus. My hands were shaking so bad I could barely control my direction. I almost ran into several cars. When I finally got to the office, the letter began with "I am delighted to inform you..."

  8. oooh, what an intense moment!! :)

  9. that is quite a tale Ms. Katie (i'm glad it ended with a happily ever after.)

  10. What a great blog post!! I suffered from sleep apnea as well. Once they removed my tonsils and adnoids I was fine. Your experience beats mine hands down, haha. The scariest phone call I've ever gotten was from my husband. He called shortly after we were married. "Hi baby. I've just been in an accident. I'm okay. The truck is dead though." Umm...ok. Yeah, turns out the truck was totaled. I found this out a little at a time while freaking out. Then his boss brings him home with massive scrapes and bruising on his arms and chest. My husband killed the dashboard of the truck with his chest and refused medical care. I've never freaked out more in my life. He was ok...just sore for a couple of weeks.

  11. Thanks for reading, Jessica and Cassidy! :)