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For decades, Grace Ayala suffered from untreated sleep apnea — a disorder characterized by heavy snoring and breathing disruptions that caused her to wake up gasping for air. She began to snore during her second pregnancy, and it became worse after her daughter was born.

“I didn’t even realize it.” she says, “but everyone else told me I was snoring heavily when I napped or slept. Then I started to notice a difference in how I was feeling, such as getting noticeably tired during the day when I drove in the car or was waiting at a stoplight.”

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious problem that occurs when the muscles in the throat relax, block the airway, and cause breathing to stop temporarily. When breathing stops, the oxygen levels in the blood fall. Over time, these low levels of oxygen can lead to life-threatening complications like heart attack, stroke, and even premature death. One in every 15 Americans suffers from sleep apnea and the condition can also affect children.

Summit Health sleep apnea patient Grace AyalaFinding a diagnosis and treatment

Family members or bed partners often recognize the problem before the patient. “My oldest daughter, who is a nurse, saw me napping and actually witnessed my breathing stop,” explains Grace. “She suggested I go seek medical help.”

Grace was in her late forties when the doctor diagnosed her with sleep apnea. During a sleep study, which records the activity of the body throughout the night, her breathing stopped 36 times per hour or more than 240 times during an eight-hour night of sleep.

Grace was put on CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) — a common treatment for sleep apnea that helps keep the airway open throughout the night. The CPAP machine is connected to a mask that Grace wore while she slept. She used the machine for two years but unfortunately did not have much success.

“I just couldn’t tolerate it,” explains Grace. “I would wake up in the mornings and the mask was on the floor. I tried using different masks, but they weren’t working for me.” She wasn’t alone — more than half of CPAP patients do not have success using the machine.

Grace knew she would have to find another solution. She heard about a surgical solution called Inspire technology for sleep apnea and consulted Summit Health ear, nose, and throat specialist, Ahmad Mahmoud MD, for a consultation and the procedure was done in March 2022.

Inspire® technology is a hands-free, remote-operated device that controls sleep apnea by keeping the tongue away from the airway, so breathing is unencumbered. Dr. Mahmoud performs the largest volume of Inspire implants for sleep apnea in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area.

How Inspire works

Inspire is “like a pacemaker for your tongue,” describes Dr. Mahmoud. “During the procedure, two small incisions are made, under the jaw and below the clavicle, to implant the sensor. This sensor monitors your breathing at night and whenever you take a breath in it sends a little signal to your tongue telling it to move forward and get out of the way, so it doesn't cause airway obstruction. It does that throughout the night.”

He also explained that the patient should not feel any pain or be aware that this device is running. In November 2022, Grace was among the first group of patients in the U.S. to have the new advanced remote control that allows online syncing with her phone. Dr. Mahmoud can access this information and review her usage data in real time. 

Grace will visit the office yearly to make sure everything is working properly and have any necessary adjustments made. The device also has a battery that gets replaced after about 10 years.

“There have been about 30,000 implants nationwide and it's quickly growing in popularity,” says Dr. Mahmoud. “When Grace came to me, she had been suffering from sleep apnea for a long time. Since being implanted with the device, her sleep apnea is completely gone.”

A life-changer and improvement in quality of life

Research has shown that the Inspire procedure and technology are a complete cure for about 80% of patients. For another 15% of people who have the surgery, there is a reduction in sleep apnea. The failure rate is around 5%.

Surgical and long-term complications occur in less than 1% of patients. Side effects are generally minimal, explains Dr. Mahmoud, and may include tongue soreness, which can often be overcome with minor programming adjustments to the remote.

“At Summit Health it's a team effort,” says Dr. Mahmoud. “I may perform the implant surgery but there is a group effort between myself and the sleep medicine doctors, who are also heavily involved in the patient’s process.”

Grace happily has a new lease on life, having been completely cured of her sleep apnea. “I now have a restful night’s sleep, without snoring or having any breathing issues,” she describes. “It’s the best thing I ever did and has improved my health and quality of life immeasurably.”

Sleep is the foundation of good health. If you have symptoms of sleep apnea or another sleep disorder, make an appointment with a sleep medicine specialist at Summit Health. Our specialists will evaluate you and develop a treatment plan to help you rest comfortably throughout the night and feel less tired during the day.