Earlier this year, the FDA approved a first-of-its-kind implantable device to treat sleep apnea, which uses mild electronic stimulation to move the tongue to open blocked airways. Scott Longert, 60, a park ranger and author in Cleveland, Ohio, was one of the first patients to undergo surgery to implant the device in his chest as part of the clinical trial to test the safety and efficacy of the treatment. Recently, he told The Huffington Post his story. Note: Be sure to discuss with your doctor if this treatment option is right for you.
I didn't understand that I had symptoms [of sleep apnea]. I would wake up very tired; I couldn't get alert for a long time. I just thought that's how everybody was. It would be really difficult to function early in the morning. I would always get to work on time, but I wasn't mentally ready to start the day. Before lunch, I would get very tired, and by mid-afternoon it would be really awful.
It intensified because my snoring got really bad. It would wake up my wife, and she would wake me up and say I had to do something about it. I denied it. There's nothing wrong, I thought.
I read about sleep apnea, but I thought right away, it can't be me. I thought maybe I should lose a few pounds and exercise more, but it didn't get any better. Then about 10 years ago, my primary care physician convinced me to have a sleep study done. I thought, "Yeah, I'll do it, but it's going to come out normal. I'm tired and all that, but so what?"
The results came back that I had severe sleep apnea. I was completely shocked. It wasn't just that I had it -- I had it really bad! I woke up something like 39 times an hour and stopped breathing almost the same amount. It was a rude awakening and really scary.
The No. 1 form of therapy for sleep apnea is the CPAP [continuous positive airway pressure] machine. I had trouble right away. The mask was very confining, and you have to sleep on your back and not move much. I like to sleep on my side, and I move around in my sleep; the connector hose would come loose or come off. I tried it for two or three months, but it was a struggle every night. I wouldn't fall asleep until 1 or 2 in the morning, and then I'd wake up at 4. Doctors suggested I take a sleeping pill, but I wasn't going to do that. I gave up on CPAP, but my doctors told me it was a big mistake because of the strain on my heart [from untreated sleep apnea]. It can shorten your life significantly, and that scared me, so I went back on the machine. I had the same results, and gave it up again. I tried it a third time for about a month, and felt really in a quandary; I just can't use the machine. I knew other people who could. I gave up and thought I was destined to be in trouble.
In the fall of 2011, I saw in the paper that University Hospital was doing a study on sleep apnea. My wife said we ought to try it. There were about 130 people at the first meeting, and I figured I'd never get in. But for once I was lucky to have something severe: I was selected because of how bad my sleep apnea was. Only about seven people were selected.
There was a lot of paperwork to do and a lot of meetings with the doctor and the surgeon. I got the implant in February or March of 2012. I had never had surgery before, outside of at the dentist. I worried it could all go wrong. My wife was very worried about my health; she didn't want me to leave her prematurely. My primary care physician told me if I didn't try it, I could regret it later. My wife took it very seriously, and told me I had nothing to lose. Her support put me over the top, and along with answers from my doctors, I went through with it.
They thought the surgery would take about two hours, but they were learning it as they went along, so mine took about three-and-a-half. [After a 30-day waiting period,] I started using it and it worked. It was just unbelievable. I thought, "What are the chances of this succeeding, it's a study," but it did work. It keeps my airway clear, and I sleep normally through the night. It's a revelation for me.
The longer you have it, you don't really feel it, you get so used to it. There's a delay [in when it starts working], so mine is set for half an hour, and I usually fall asleep before then. But you can feel it pushing your tongue. You feel a vibration; it's a strange sensation. The first few nights it woke me up right away, but after no more than two or three days, I was sleeping through it. If you have to get up in the middle of the night there's a pause button, which gives you 10 minutes. If I have a cold and I'm having trouble sleeping already, I'll have to wrestle with it a bit, but usually I set it for 30 minutes [when I get into bed], and I don't remember it until the morning. The experience is miles apart from the claustrophobic feeling of the CPAP.
About 30 days after [I started using the device], I went in for a sleep study. I was waking up below 10 times an hour when I slept on my side. I had four or five more sleep studies after that, and I was waking up below 10 times an hour on my back and close to zero times an hour on my side.
Now, I get out of bed and by the time I brush my teeth and head to the shower, I'm awake and alert. I can have a conversation with my wife at the breakfast table. I can function at work early in the morning. I no longer rely on a morning sugar rush from a big pastry or a soda. I can get through the entire day and I'm awake and alert. It helps my work production, I can do more during more hours of the day.
I'm very lucky that I could go through this without any cost, and now that it's FDA-approved, there's going to be cost involved. But I do really believe it's worth it, not just because I got it for free. It could improve thousands of people's quality of life and maybe improve longevity. I'm hoping people will embrace this and go forward with it. It's really improved the quality of my life greatly, [in ways] I didn't expect to have at this age.
This interview has been edited and condensed. As told to Sarah Klein.