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Firefighter finds lasting solution for his sleep apnea

By The Health News Team | March 11, 2024
San Diego firefighter Justin Hommel with his family

San Diego firefighter Justin Hommel with his family.

Justin Hommel knew something had to change. Although he was just 35, he'd struggled with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) for years.

Sleep apnea occurs when the tongue or throat muscles relax and block the airway during sleep. The condition is the most common sleep-related breathing disorder and is more common among men than women.

OSA was preventing Justin from enjoying good sleep, which is essential for him as a firefighter and father to two toddlers and one preteen. “I would snore really loudly and wake up because I would stop breathing while I was asleep,” Justin says.

Searching for answers — and a good night’s sleep

Justin received his diagnosis after he completed a sleep study that showed he had 15 AHI apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) per hour. AHI signifies the number of times shallow breathing, or no breathing, occurs for more than 10 seconds while a person is asleep.

To relieve his symptoms, Justin tried using a continuous airway pressure machine (CPAP), which helps keep the breathing airways open during sleep. “I tried it for several months, but the mask would slip off while I slept and dry my mouth,” he says.

The CPAP was also cumbersome for Jason to transport to work. Working 24-hour shifts for three days each week, Justin often sleeps at the firehouse, where he is on call for emergencies.

“A person can naturally develop OSA if their throat muscles are loose enough,” says Dr. Chadwick Donaldson, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital and Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “Heavy weight can also add to the cause of this disorder. As we age, our muscles lose elasticity, so the problem can worsen with time.”

Justin was young and at a healthy weight, but he worried about developing poor health due to his OSA. The disorder increases the risk of heart failure by 140%, stroke by 60% and coronary heart disease by 30%.

Finally, a solution and sound sleep

Feeling chronically fatigued, Justin turned to Dr. Donaldson for relief and learned about the Inspire therapy device. The small FDA-approved device is implanted between the patient’s neck and chest and makes mild stimulations to the airway muscles so that the airway remains open during sleep.

“I found Inspire interesting and a little weird at first,” says Justin. “But after researching more about it on my own, I thought it could work for me.”

In September 2022, Justin underwent outpatient surgery with Dr. Donaldson, who completed the first surgery at Sharp HealthCare using Inspire therapy at Sharp Memorial Hospital's James S. Brown Pavilion. Within a few months after his procedure, Justin's wife noticed his poor sleep and breathing symptoms diminished.

Before going to bed, Justin turns on the Inspire device with a remote and turns it off after waking up. He doesn’t feel his muscles stimulated by the device while sleeping and hasn’t woken up from it.

“My focus and mood improved, and I didn’t realize my fatigue was so bad until I had finally gotten restful sleep,” he says. “The technology is super easy to use.”

Another sleep study found that Justin’s AHI decreased to 1.1 per hour after using the device. Today, he’s enjoying the rest that he missed for several years.

“We may think something is strange if we’re unfamiliar with it, but I’m used to this device now and my symptoms have improved,” says Justin. “I’m thankful to have met Dr. Donaldson. He’s been supportive during my entire treatment journey.”

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