Eleven o'clock is "lights out." The little room goes dark; the door closes. Benjamin Navarro has set aside his copy of the New Republic, and he lies back in bed, trying to get comfortable with 18 wires crisscrossing his body.
At 11:02 sharp, Navarro yawns. A needle swings wildly on a monitor humming softly in the next room. At 11:10 p.m., Navarro turns onto his left side, and a half-dozen needles jerk in response.
This night will be like no other for Navarro, a 32-year-old computer programmer from Carson, who dozes off by 11:18 p.m. For the next seven hours, his every breath, movement and heartbeat will be recorded as he spends the night in a sleep disorders laboratory tucked away in the basement of Torrance Memorial Medical Center.
He is here because doctors think he might suffer from sleep apnea, a disorder marked by loud snoring and interrupted breathing. Once considered relatively obscure, sleep apnea is stirring increased concern among physicians because it can cause severe daytime fatigue, high blood pressure, stroke and heart problems; serious cases can be life-threatening.
A study published two weeks ago in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that sleep apnea is more common than once believed. The study found that 9% of women and 24% of men had sleep-disordered breathing; 2% of women and 4% of men in the middle-aged work force met the criteria for sleep apnea. That would make undiagnosed sleep apnea "a major public health burden," a Journal editorial stated.
Thus, as awareness of apnea and other sleep disorders mounts, suspected sufferers are spending their nights under an infrared camera's watchful eye in hundreds of so-called "sleep labs" across America, sensors dotting their skin and scalp.
Depending on the severity of the apnea, treatment can include use of a nighttime face mask or even surgery. There's a less high-tech approach for those who snore or suffer apnea only while on their backs: sewing a tennis ball in the back of their pajamas tops so they will sleep on their sides instead.
Not surprisingly, roommates and spouses are often the first to spot potential apnea victims. Navarro is a longtime snorer; he can remember his college roommates waking him to request that he tone it down.
His wife, Christine, grew worried when she noticed that he sometimes stopped breathing briefly during the night. She learned about sleep apnea from her doctor and urged her husband to get tested.
Although Navarro feels tired during the day, he pointed out that he has three young children, and that is enough to wear anyone down. Nevertheless, he decided to check in at the 12-year-old sleep center at Torrance Memorial, which treats people for sleep apnea, narcolepsy, insomnia and other sleep disorders.
The center can accommodate two overnight guests at a time, sleeping in rooms akin to small motel rooms with a blandly soporific decor.
Dress is casual. Navarro arrived shortly after 9 p.m. in gray warm-ups, stripping to a T-shirt and shorts so that technician Aida Rey could begin the painstaking half-hour process of taping sensors to his face, scalp, chest and legs.
"Are you going to be able to tell what my dreams are?" he asked.
No, she assured him; his dreams would be off limits.
But little else will be private after Navarro falls asleep.
In the next room, a video screen shows Navarro dozing peacefully. Pink computer paper moves steadily through the polysomnograph, a machine with 12 needles that records everything from his eye movements to heart contractions.
All night, Rey will monitor the needles' black tracks, paying special attention to those measuring Navarro's breathing. Sleep apnea victims have been known to stop breathing hundreds of times each night.
A technician woke him at 6:25 a.m. to remove the electrodes. Declining a hospital breakfast, Navarro went home to change before heading for his job in San Pedro.
He left behind a three-inch-thick record of his night that technicians and doctors would scrutinize in coming days.
Their conclusion: Navarro does not suffer from sleep apnea, although he experiences fragmented sleep because of breathing abnormalities. Next, Navarro will have X-rays done so that his doctor can learn more about the problem.
Another sleep lab patient, Pasadena resident William H. Chapman, was tested after his wife wrote his doctor to express concern about his restless sleep.
Chapman, 61, has been a heavy snorer for decades.
"The descriptions of my snoring went from something like a growling bear to a machine that was going to knock down the house," he said. When he and his son went camping in southern Utah last year, his son asked him to sleep in the truck.
He felt bone-tired during the day, what he describes as "30 years struggling against this weariness that you feel perpetually. No alertness. No get-up-and-go."