here because my wife wants me here.” Dr. Alan S. Glann, a sleep specialist in Auburn, says a complaining spouse is the most common reason patients give when they first see him about sleep problems.

Not only do problems such as snoring, kicking, even acting out dreams affect the sleeping person’s health, but usually the bed partner suffers as well and notices the sleep disorder symptoms first.

“Often, the bed partner urges a patient to come in because he or she is worried that their partner is going to die or is seriously concerned about their health,” said Glann.

That was the case with Joe and Patsy Laliberte, who’ve been married 28 years.

Joe, now 52 and semi-retired, had always been involved in law enforcement and high-pressured work. He was used to putting in 14 or 15 hours a day on the job and used to calls in the middle of the night. As a federal officer at the time of the terrorist attack Sept. 11, 2001, Joe was sent to Afghanistan as well as 20 other countries, where his work was his life.

For 14 months, Joe had few days off and worked 17-hour days to provide security for government officials.

“But it was easy to work,” said Joe. “After 9/11, I had a renewed vigor and commitment. It was a way of life. It was interesting and gratifying.”

Then, when Joe returned home from his duties as a federal security officer in Afghanistan in 2002, his lifestyle changed. Relieved and appreciative of their life at home, Joe and Patsy celebrated. After all, they’d only seen each other twice in more than a year.

In 2003, Joe retired. And as Patsy put it, “It was party city for a while.”

Still tired in the a.m.

No longer under the government’s physical requirements and weight restrictions, Joe started getting heavier. Joe was never allowed to weigh more than 184 pounds as a federal agent. He said he had gotten up to 219 pounds after returning home.

Then Patsy noticed that Joe had difficulty sleeping, was snoring heavily. Joe said he would wake up not feeling rested. Joe’s problems were making Patsy feel tired as well.

“Initially, he didn’t believe anything was going on,” said Patsy. “But I knew he was having issues. I didn’t care if he was heavy, but I could see where he was heading.”

That’s because Patsy has worked in the sleep-medicine field for the past 10 years. As a registered polysomnographic technologist for St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center’s sleep center, Patsy recognized the symptoms and understood the connections between lack of quality sleep and other physical problems such as high blood pressure.

Finally Joe attended a public information seminar on sleep disorders. When discussion focused on sleep apnea, a disorder that affects more than 12 million Americans, according to the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, Joe realized that he might have a problem.

For someone with sleep apnea, breathing stops for about 10 to 20 seconds at a time, according to the national center. These breathing disruptions can occur 20 to 30 times an hour and are usually caused by a physical obstruction, such as a tongue or neck tissue. More than half of apnea sufferers are overweight.

“It all made sense,” said Joe. “Once I was presented with all of the facts, I was empowered. I decided that I wanted to spend another 28 years with my wife and that I needed to do something.”

Joe immediately joined Weight Watchers. He’s noticed a direct improvement in his sleep quality and energy now that he’s down to 189 pounds. His goal is to lose five to 10 pounds more.

Mask can help

However, the doctor notes that apnea can occur with people who are thin. While weight loss may relieve the problem for some patients, most require outside help.

Glann, who also specializes in pulmonary medicine, said sleep apnea is the most common of the approximately 100 types of sleep disorders. He usually prescribes a continuous, positive airway pressure mask as a remedy.

The mask, worn during sleep, provides a constant air flow to prevent obstruction in the breathing passages, said Glann. Joe decided that he didn’t want to wear the CPAP mask and would try weight loss first.

“Most people do fine with the CPAP and get used to it,” said Glann. “You’d probably be surprised at how many people use one.”

Glann added that surgery also is an option, but that it is unreliable as people change with age.

Sleep apnea has a direct connection to heart attacks, strokes and mortality, said Glann. Sleep disorders in general are often related to fatal accidents that happen in the workplace or while driving. More than half the people suffering from sleep problems have more than one sleep disorder at a time or may have another medical condition that creates the problem.

Insomnia, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, and REM behavior disorder are some of the more common disorders, said Glann.

After a detailed screening designed to eliminate possibilities and to peel away different factors, Glann may refer patients for a sleep study for more data.

Sleep lab in Lewiston

St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston offers one of only two sleep centers in Maine accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The hospital’s sleep lab, located in a separate building, provides state of the art electronic monitoring and computerized data on what happens while someone is sleeping.

Peter Leavitt, director of the St. Mary’s cardiopulmonary services, said that between 85 to 95 percent of patients who have come into the lab have been diagnosed with apnea.

“When I first proposed the program, it sounded like voodoo medicine,” said Leavitt, who worked with Dr. Ralph Harder in 1993 to open the sleep center. “It took a while for sleep disorders to be recognized, but then the connections were made between sleep and other medical conditions.”

Leavitt points out that medical insurance plans usually cover sleep studies to prevent dealing with more serious heart and lung problems.

St. Mary’s sleep center started with two beds and saw about 200 patients a year. Now the center has four beds open six nights a week and sees about 800 patients a year, said Leavitt.

Patients who come in for a sleep study can be assured that while everything is monitored and recorded, all information stays confidential and protected, said Leavitt.

Anita Landino, one of the lab’s four sleep technicians, said that two technicians are always in the monitoring room for checks and balances. The sleep techs are responsible for monitoring the computerized data transmitted through 16 different electrical attachments on the patient’s scalp, face, and body.

Andrew Woodward, another sleep technician, noted how much technology has changed since he got his start in the sleep field 23 years ago doing open-heart research in the Air Force.

“This is one area you can make a difference in someone’s life, literally overnight,” said Woodward. “There have been so many couples that we’ve reunited. There have been so many patients who are able to eliminate other health problems just by looking at their sleep.”

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