Breakthrough sleep apnea surgery now offered in Baldwin County


FAIRHOPE, Ala – (WKRG) Pat Sweet describes how loudly her husband, Tom, snored before having surgery for obstructive sleep apnea.

Pat Sweet describes how her loudly her husband, Tom, snored before undergoing surgery for obstructive sleep apnea.

“It was like a freight train.” Sleep apnea is a condition that makes sufferers stop breathing in their sleep. Some find relief from a CPAP machine that delivers pressurized air through a face mask, but patients often complain about it being bulky and loud and stop using the equipment.

Now, both husband and wife sleep more peacefully after he underwent an outpatient procedure that allows patients to trade in bulky equipment for a pacemaker like implant activated by remote control.

Tom Sweet now enjoys fishing and other daily activities.

“I wake up refreshed every morning. I no longer have the daytime where I just pull the car over to the side to go take a nap,” said Tom.

A surgeon places the Inspire into the chest under the skin. It senses when the patient stops breathing and delivers an electric pulse that pushes the tongue forward, out of the airway.

Tom says it’s very simple to use. He sets a timer with a remote control to activate the device in his sleep.

Tom Sweet demonstrates how he turns on the pacemaker like device with a remote control.

“I’t doesn’t hurt at all. You feel a little tingling or twinge and that’s it for a millisecond, and that goes away. My device is set up for like a thirty minute window which allows me to go off into sleep.”

“It sticks out a little bit, but you can’t see a scar. I’m totally unaware of it except when someone else asks me about it,” said another Inspire recipient, Michael Freeman. The Retired Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics from the University of Alabama recalls his students teasing him for falling asleep in class.

Michael Freeman says he’s unaware of the device until someone asks him if he has a pacemaker.

He chose to undergo surgery because of concerns of developing early onset dementia caused by sleep apnea.

“My entire life I’ve done things where I’ve depended on my brain for what I did and the idea of dementia was very frightening to me. I thought about..’what would my wife do if I had early onset dementia?’ How would that change her life. It’s not just changing mine, you changes everybody around you gets changed by it,” said Freeman.

Michael Freeman says before Inspire his wife would wake up and wait for him to breathe and sometimes have to sleep upstairs.

Now, he enjoys not being tied down to a CPAP machine and the convenience of Inspire.

“Like most people who use CPAP, I wasn’t happy with it. I didn’t always use it all the way through the night. The mask is problematic. It’s not unusual for it to end up under your bed,” said Freeman.

Keith Kowal of Baldwin County is a Sleep Medicine Doctor and Otolaryngology (Ear, Nose & Throat) Specialist. He has implanted the device in patients in other parts of the country and says he participated in animal studies in the 1980’s. He’s excited to be offering the technology to patients at Thomas Hospital in Fairhope.

Dr. Keith Kowal says the surgery is an opportunity for people “who’ve been using CPAP therapy which has been the gold standard until now.”

“This has been a game changer for a lot of people and it’s exciting that we can give people an opportunity to change their lives. Their energy, their cognition level, their sleep partners. Everything is changed in their life, even in social aspects of their lives.”

Dr. Kowal says Inspire has a very high success rate and it is the answer to many medical problems as sleep apnea puts patients at risk for dementia, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. In many cases, insurance does cover the procedure.

“Patients have less core morbidity. They resolve all their heart problems, hypertension”, said Kowal.


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