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sweet dreams Sleep apnoea sufferer discusses relief after a lifetime of exhaustion is treated

"I was wrecked all the time, I’d be in bad humour – Imagine going to bed & waking up as tired as you were getting into bed..."

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John McKiernan

John McKiernan

John McKiernan

As John McKiernan read the newspaper feature, his eyes widened and his jaw dropped.

There, laid bare in front of him, was a checklist of the very symptoms he had struggled with his whole life but had shrugged off as part of the stresses of modern living.

As he nodded his way through the list, John realised he had sleep apnoea, a potentially serious disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts.

For the first time, all of his daily struggles — the constant tiredness and fatigue, the nodding off in the afternoons, the need to stop for a break during a car journey — made perfect sense.

“There was a doctor in the Mater, and she did an article in one of the papers,” he said. “She had a list of things. And I went down the list going: ‘Yes. Yes. Yes. I have all of them’. I was 40 years of age. But from 12 or 13, particularly in class, I would fall asleep. I just thought that was the normal way of life.”

John promptly made an appointment to attend a sleep clinic, where he was attached to various machinery and his sleep analysed throughout the course of a night. A diagnosis of severe sleep apnoea was soon confirmed.

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John McKiernan didn’t know for years that he had sleep apnea.

John McKiernan didn’t know for years that he had sleep apnea.

John McKiernan didn’t know for years that he had sleep apnea.

A condition where your breathing can stop and start as many as dozens of times an hour at night, sleep apnoea is a regularly under-diagnosed and misunderstood condition.

It has very real implications to have a serious impact on the sufferer, especially in the areas of safety. Yet, it’s thought that half the estimated one in twenty people in Ireland with the condition go undiagnosed.

But because those with the disorder have no recollection of their fitful sleeping the following morning, it can be difficult to pinpoint and diagnose. Many times it only gets diagnosed when the sufferer is in a relationship and their partner pin-points the symptoms.

By the time John realised he had sleep apnoea, the effects of it had made its presence very much felt.

“What happens is, when you’re snoring, you actually snore to what you call a crescendo, you stop (breathing) for a nanosecond. And what happens is your brain alerts your body, says: ‘This guy’s having a heart attack or he’s stopping breathing. Everybody get ready’. You wake up wrecked.

“I was wrecked all the time, I’d be in bad humour. Forgive my French, I was bo***xed for years, having no energy. And I had young kids at the time. You put it down to stress, you put it down to everything.

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“You know, it should be a calm state. What is sleep supposed to do? To refresh you. What’s the definition of sleep? Go to bed, wake refreshed. Imagine going to bed and waking up the next day, as tired as you were getting into bed.”

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John McKiernan didn’t know for years that he had sleep apnea.

John McKiernan didn’t know for years that he had sleep apnea.

John McKiernan didn’t know for years that he had sleep apnea.

Upon diagnosis, doctors suggested that John try using a CPAP machine (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure). This is a device that pushes oxygenated air through the nasal passages, keeping them open and providing uninterrupted sleep. It consists of a pump and a mask that is worn over the nose, mouth or both.

While medical experts caution that this approach will not work for everyone, for John it was a game-changer. “It’s life changing. I’m incredibly enthusiastic about it because it does make a change.

“I have plenty of energy to do things now. Your humour changes, your memory changes, everything.”

So enthused is John, who works in sales, by his own experiences that he set up his own website sleepapneaireland.com and has become the Irish agent for a specialist in respiratory care products services based in China. His aim is to make the equipment more affordable and accessible to others.

“Prior to my diagnosis I was living in a state of constant fatigue,” he said. “My wife also suffered as I was keeping her awake every night with constant snoring, tossing and turning. It was such a relief when I was diagnosed with sleep apnoea 20 years ago.”

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