Sheehan

A noisy sleeper fights his battle quickly, quietly

Staff WriterOctober 20, 2009 

You might think of snoring putting a crimp in your love life, but it can also keep you from being sent to fight in one of the world's most dangerous cities.

Unless you're Ken Colvin.

Colvin, who had served 12 years in the Army, left the military -- he thought for good -- in the mid-1990s. But after 9/11, he couldn't stay away.

"I thought, 'Am I going to leave this to a bunch of 18-year-olds? Hell, no.'" He signed up with the National Guard in 2002.

Fair to say he was gung ho. So Colvin wasn't sorry to hear last spring that he was being reassigned to a Guard unit scheduled to deploy for Iraq in September.

It was during his pre-deployment physical, though, that he discovered his snoring was not only a nuisance, it was a medical condition that might keep him out of Iraq and the Guard.

Several years ago, his snoring had so annoyed and worried his now ex-wife that he agreed to a sleep study, which discovered that Colvin routinely stopped breathing during the night. Yep, he was one of those snorers who snorts and chokes off into a frightening silence before resuming breathing, only to do it all over again. The medical term is sleep apnea, and there was a noninvasive remedy.

Colvin began going to sleep every night looking as if he were ready for a gas attack on Baghdad. He wore a device called a C-PAP machine.

The contraption involved a mask, strapped to Colvin's face, that was hooked to a hose and a small machine that pumped air into his nostril all night long.

Thanks to the machine, Colvin (and anyone sleeping in rooms nearby) found the deepest slumber in years.

Not sleeping easy

It seemed like a reasonable solution, until Colvin learned that reliance on a C-PAP not only made him unfit for deployment but also made him unfit for any military duty.

"Instead of going to Iraq, I was looking at the possibility of being kicked out of the Guard," he said. Colvin opened the Yellow Pages and began looking for ear, nose and throat doctors. He needed a fast, permanent solution.

When he called Dr. Doug Holmes' office, he knew he had found the right place.

Not only did the doctor squeeze him in for an appointment the same day, Colvin learned that Holmes was also retired Air Force Col. Holmes.

The next day, Colvin was scheduled for surgery at Rex Healthcare. Holmes removed Colvin's uvula, the little flap of skin at the back of the throat, tightened up his palette, trimmed the base of Colvin's tongue and straightened up the divider (septum) in his nose.

In such an operation, Holmes said, he expects a success rate of about 65 percent to 85 percent.

"Very rarely do we see people who go from the C-PAP to nothing," Holmes said.

Colvin, though, did just that. Not only did the surgery end the apnea, his blood pressure dropped to normal after years of requiring medication.

Within six weeks, Colvin was cleared to leave for Iraq.

Beyond the call of duty

Holmes wanted people to know that not only do soldiers like Colvin serve without complaint, they serve willingly. They even willingly undergo surgery to make it happen.

Colvin, for his part, was so grateful for Holmes' handiwork that when he had a chance to fly an American flag at his base in Balad, Iraq, he did so in honor of his doctor.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828

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