Mother never expected sons apnea to be fatal

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Mother never expected son's apnea to be fatal

Graeme McElheran, Calgary Herald
Monday, January 13, 2003

When Trevor Lee Haines of Airdrie was diagnosed with sleep apnea four years ago, his mother never imagined the disorder might one day claim his life.

But Wednesday afternoon Haines, 18, died when he fell asleep while watching television at home and simply stopped breathing.

"We didn't know it was that serious," said Haines's mother, Carol Rawlyck, of her son's fatal disorder.

"We didn't expect this to happen to someone so young and so healthy," she said.

Since his diagnosis in 1998, Haines used a continuous positive airway pressure machine during his sleeping hours. A light mask over his nose kept his airway inflated as he slept.

But Raw-lyck said the CPAP is a cumbersome device that is not easily moved, and Haines never used it when he wasn't asleep.

He wasn't using the CPAP when he died.

"He was six foot four, 220 pounds, size 18 feet. He was excited about being 18. He was excited about becoming a man," Rawlyck said, adding that her son was into guitars, girls and cars.

"I hope there's a better place he has gone to. I take comfort in that," she said.

Haines's death occurred despite a throat operation he underwent last year, which his mother said helps 50 per cent of patients, but only made her son's condition three times worse.

Haines was a patient of Dr. Valerie Kirk, medical director of the pediatric sleep service at the Alberta Children's Hospital, who said death related to sleep apnea is exceedingly rare in people aged 18 years and younger.

"To die of sleep apnea is unusually uncommon. It's very difficult to know how often it happens," Kirk said, adding that related deaths typically result from complications, such as heart failure, after a long-term untreated battle with the illness.

Sleep apnea is characterized by lapses in breathing while asleep and chronic fatigue during the day. While breathing in normal adults tends to pause for about five seconds once an hour during slumber, in five per cent of the population the apneic episodes are more frequent and last longer -- about 20 to 25 seconds, which may result in uncontrollable daytime sleeping spells.

According to Kirk, the condition is less prevalent in children and is treatable. Two to three per cent of the population aged zero to 18 years suffer from sleep apnea, and 90 per cent can be cured, usually by having their tonsils and adenoids removed, Kirk said.

Results from studies done in Kirk's lab indicate that some apneic children pause their sleeping breath as many as 200 times in an hour.

Rawlyck said her son, who worked full time as a security guard, would usually stop breathing 17 times an hour when he slept.

Compared to 67-year-old Alex Fraser, president of the Sleep Apnea Society of Alberta (SASA), the disorder's impact on Haines's daily life was relatively mild.

Fraser was considering retiring on a disability pension from his accounting practice when he was diagnosed with sleep apnea 12 years ago.

Shocked by Haines's sudden death, Fraser said the public needs to be aware of the subtlety of sleep apnea.

"This, as sad as it is, will come to the attention of the medical community," Fraser said.

"It's a potentially fearful disease. It needs to be diagnosed, it needs to be dealt with," he said, adding that he may have suffered from sleep apnea for many years before his diagnosis at age 55.

"Four to five per cent of the population in Alberta suffers from sleep apnea. And yet, how many people are undiagnosed?" Fraser asked.

Kirk said the peak age for a sleep apnea diagnosis is four or five. Snoring is a good marker for parents to pay attention to, she said, as are breathing difficulty while sleeping and breathing through the mouth.

Less than five deaths a year in North America result from sleep apnea in children who have been diagnosed and treated, Kirk said.

More information about sleep apnea is available at and at 1-800-817-5337.

The funeral for Trevor Lee Haines will be held at St. Paul's Catholic Church, 1305 Main St. in Airdrie on Tuesday at 1 p.m.

© Copyright 2003 Calgary Herald



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