Strep Throat to Sleep Apnea: I Fought for Months for This Potentially Lifesaving Diagnosis
Sleep disorders can be hard to identify, especially if their symptoms occur while you're asleep. Amy Petrik, 40, of Yankton, S.D., spent three months and visited four different doctors searching for the cause of her persistent laryngitis. Once she was diagnosed and treated for sleep apnea, she got back her voice—and reclaimed her health
Amy had the worst case of sleep apnea her doctor had ever seen.(AMY PETRIK)It was about four years ago that I first began to wonder what exactly was wrong with me. I hadn't felt well in quite some time, and my normally upbeat personality was dragging to the point where other people had started to notice.
I had memory problems, severe mood swings, and anxiety issues. I woke up every morning with headaches and a dry, swollen throat, and was getting up to use the bathroom several times a night.
I felt unhealthy and unhappy, but I work two jobs, so I just assumed I was overly tired. My days were filled with four-hour naps, and still I occasionally nodded off at work or at public events.
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I'd mentioned my complaints to a few different doctors, but no one seemed to take them too seriously; even my elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels didn't sent off any alarms. And so I attributed it all to a mix of mild depression and extreme fatigue. (Only later did a sleep specialist tell me that depression, weight gain, and fatigue are all symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea.)
A wake-up call to get help
In early February, I lost of my voice for three full weeks. I mean literally: Not like laryngitis or just a sore throat, but I actually couldn't make any sound but squeaks.
I was terrified. My family physician was on vacation, so I saw another doctor in his practice. She whipped me into her office and within minutes took my vitals and diagnosed me with strep throat. I tried whispering to her what was going on, but she didn't pay too much attention to my concerns. Without even giving me any tests, she prescribed some medication and told me to come back in a week if I didn't improve.
I was back in seven days. The doctor claimed she didn't have time to see me (my regular physician was still out), but I complained enough by writing notes back and forth to the nurse on duty and was finally allowed back into an exam room. I again explained, through writing, that my throat had not improved and that I needed help. Her only solutions? Hot tea with honey and vitamin C.
At this point I turned to an ear, nose, and throat specialist at the advice of some friends. He immediately saw the warning signs that everyone else had missed and scheduled me for a sleep study.
A sleep test and a scary diagnosis
I went to the sleep lab in early April. Afterward my ENT told me that I had the most dangerous case of sleep apnea he had ever seen: He told me that I stopped breathing 120 times per hour, I wasn't getting enough oxygen in my lungs, and my cardiovascular system was steadily wearing down. It was mind-blowing. I can only remember sitting in his office crying uncontrollably, my mom doing all the talking.
It sounds overdramatic, but I knew that I was going down the same path my father had taken: He was overweight the majority of his life, had high blood pressure, and all kinds of medical problems, including untreated sleep apnea. He passed away at 67, and I was afraid I'd end up just like him, gone too soon, if I didn't get assistance right away.
I knew I was going down the same path my father had taken... He passed away at 67, and I was afraid I'd end up just like him, gone too soon, if I didn't get assistance right away.
—Amy Petrik, Sleep Apnea PatientSlow but steady treatment
The doctor told me that I had to lose a significant amount of weight to cure my sleep apnea, either that, or get a tracheotomy. Of course I didn't want a hole in my throat, but I was looking for any help I could get: Losing weight seemed impossible, since I was exhausted all the time.
One other option, although my doctor warned me that results may be minimal, was to remove my tonsils and adenoids. I had the surgery later that month, followed by another sleep study. I was disappointed: The setting for my continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, a device with a mask I wore at night to keep my airways open, went from 13 (the highest possible pressure) just down to 11.
As a naturally claustrophobic person, learning to use the CPAP machine has been difficult. The first night I took it home, I made my mom stay overnight because I was so terrified to sleep with it. I had to try three different types before I found one—a small nasal mask—that I can actually tolerate. Even then it took me a good two years to get comfortable with it.
Now, I swear by my CPAP machine. I actually tell people that it's time for me to go home to bed so that I can breathe in fresh air all night long! It has become a regular part of my bedtime ritual, and I don't go anywhere without it. Until I am given the green light that I no longer need to wear this lifesaving device, it will always be with me.
Still room for improvement
When I got my CPAP machine, I was told not only by my doctors but also by fellow sleep apnea sufferers that once I started to wear my mask that I'd wake up in the morning completely refreshed and full of energy.
Well it's been over four years and I have yet to wake up refreshed or have a day or evening full of energy. I am still a very restless sleeper; I toss and turn probably more now than ever, and I am always aware of the plastic mask on my nose.
But my sleep pattern has improved, and I no longer have to take naps to play catch up in the afternoons or early evenings. I don't have sore throats in the morning. My blood pressure is back in the healthy range, and I've joined Weight Watchers and am finally starting to shed some pounds. I'm feeling a lot better, health-wise.
Getting the word out
I've become a spokesperson for my family and friends, letting others know about what can happen if you do not get treated. I'm sure some of my loved ones also have sleep apnea, and some of them tell me they're just scared to hear the results. That's pretty frustrating to hear, considering how much I suffered before I was diagnosed and how much better I feel now.
I try to tell people, please stop what you are doing and make an appointment today! If you are afraid of doctors, don't be. If you are afraid to go to the sleep lab, just take along a friend, your mom, your wife or husband, or just take along something comforting to have by your side. This is your life we are talking about, and I promise you, you will not regret it.