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NATIONAL SLEEP FOUNDATION — When The Biggest Loser contestants Sherry Johnston and her daughter Ashley arrived at The Biggest Loser’s Ranch (Couple’s Edition), they already knew they had sleep apnea. They just hadn’t been able to treat it.

Sherry’s Story Sherry weighed 105 pounds when she got married, but after her husband passed away, she found she, “Just didn’t have that zeal and zest for life anymore.” “I just gave up on a lot of things in some areas, and part of that giving up was also about me and my weight,” she said. At 5’1,” she weighed in at The Biggest Loser at 218 pounds. Sherry had been diagnosed and treated for sleep apnea in the past, but finances were tight. “I was really careful to say, you know, ‘Is my insurance going to pay for this?’ and they said ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Because really I can’t add anymore right now.'” But, a few months after starting CPAP therapy, she received a large bill in the mail. She called her doctor’s office and found out that the insurance company wouldn’t pay for it. Sherry learned she would be required to pay for part of the CPAP each month, but eventually the insurance would kick in and pay the rest. She would have to pay upfront. She appealed, but a month later she got another bill. “And so financially, I was a little tight at [that] moment, and I made the decision… took it down, and turned my CPAP back in.

The Biggest Loser Contestant Sherry Johnston on CPAP Therapy

I said, ‘I can’t afford to have this because I can’t pay for it right now.’ And they were like, ‘What? I mean, you really need this. Nobody ever turns them back in.’ I said, ‘I know, I don’t want to, but I don’t have another choice.'” Sherry thinks she had mild sleep apnea, “or at least compared to Ashley’s it was mild, but I think compared to Ashley’s, everyone’s [apnea] is mild.”

Sherry had concerns about Ashley long before she was diagnosed with sleep apnea at age seven. Ashley was very small, and she had stopped growing when she was four or five. Sherry told her doctor that Ashley would snore in her sleep and stop breathing. “The doctor said, ‘When she gets to where she can’t breathe a minute at a time, we’ll think about doing something.'” “So, I sat up with a stopwatch with this child and watching her chest rise and fall and rise and fall and then gasp for air.” Sherry said in those days, she could not go to a specialist without a referral from her primary care doctor. Finally, after a bout with strep throat, Sherry brought Ashley into the primary care practice, and a different doctor saw her that day. “He said, ‘I cannot believe you have not had this child’s tonsils and adenoids removed. They are the biggest I have ever seen.'” “I told him I have been trying to get them to take her tonsils out, and he replied, ‘Well we will take them out immediately.'”

With the tonsils gone, Ashley’s sleep apnea went away for awhile, but when she got older, it came back. Sherry says, “I would be up at night. If I woke up and heard her snoring or gasping, I knew she was breathing. If I did not hear anything, I would get up, and go and open her door, just to make sure she was alive. It was that severe.” Ashley did not have health insurance, but Sherry connected her with a local sleep center that offers one free sleep study a month. They gave Ashley a used CPAP machine, but she felt like it “blew her head off.” She had lots of excuses not to use it. Sherry worried about her constantly.

One of the best parts of being a contestant on The Biggest Loser, for Sherry, was receiving free, brand new CPAPs for her and Ashley. “[It] was one of the greatest gifts I or Ashley have been given… For me, it was such a peace of mind knowing that we both had CPAP …it was the first really good night’s sleep I’d had in a long time.” “I didn’t realize how important [CPAP] was, and how I was putting my life in jeopardy in some ways by turning that machine back in when I really did need it.” Sherry went on to lose 99 pounds. Now she’s the same size she was in high school and on her wedding day. She and Ashley are still using their CPAPs and are doing well. “I was 51 when I started [The Biggest Loser]. I’m 52 now, and I feel like if there’s a challenge, then I’m up for it. Now I feel better about myself all around. Not just physically, but emotionally because we always have things to tackle, and it’s never too late. It’s never too late.”

CPAP, The Biggest Loser and You

Both Sean Algaier and Sherry Johnston adjusted well to their CPAP treatment, which isn’t always typical. (Sean did say that he would have worn a Darth Vader mask at that point if it would have helped him feel better.) However, some cast members have had a hard time adjusting to CPAP, especially when they first started with their treatment. The show has focused on ways to overcome these challenges. “On [The Biggest Loser], they showed this guy who really, really struggled with CPAP, and we were able to work with him, getting him used to it, and it made a big difference,” says Pam Minkley. “They’re not just showing the ideal – ‘I sleep now. I feel better.’

There are people who have that response when they start CPAP, and that’s wonderful, but a lot of people struggle with it, and the message is ‘don’t stop struggling, get the help you need; there are people out there who can help you. Look until you find somebody who can help you. It’s important.” If you are having problems with your sleep, visit the National Sleep Foundation’s Web site, www.sleepfoundation.org and click Find a Sleep Professional to locate a sleep specialist in your area.