NFL Star Reggie White: Death Due to Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Reggie White
Reggie White | Source

Famed NFL defensive lineman Reggie White and I had a lot in common.

Not the part about being called pro football's "Minister of Defense," being twice selected as the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, being elected to the Pro Bowl a record 13 straight times, and being a first ballot inductee into the National Football League Hall of Fame. Those accomplishments are Reggie's alone. But there are some things we shared:

  • Grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • Attended Howard High School
  • Captain of the Howard Hustlin' Tigers football team
  • Graduate of the University of Tennessee
  • Minister of the Gospel
  • Victim of sleep apnea

I'm proud to say I shared all these characteristics with Reggie -- except that I'm not at all proud of the last one. You see, Reggie's sleep apnea condition, which I share, was a major contributing factor to his dying in his sleep at the age of 43.

Reggie’s death was totally unexpected

It happened without warning on the morning just after Christmas in 2004. Reggie appeared to be in excellent health, having dropped to about 25 pounds below his playing weight of 325 pounds. The only troubling issue was a persistent cough that had bothered him for some time.

The previous evening, Christmas night, Reggie and his wife and children had attended a movie together. The film was Bill Cosby’s “Fat Albert,” and Reggie loved it. His wife Sara remembers that he sat on the front row, and “he laughed and coughed, laughed and coughed.” After the show the family went home and to bed as usual.

But the next morning Reggie never came out of his sleep. When Sara awoke, Reggie was snoring, which he almost always did, and she poked him, as she usually did, to get him to stop. Instead, he began coughing and then choking in his sleep. He soon stopped breathing. Sara called 911 and administered CPR. But at the hospital Reggie never regained consciousness.

The county medical examiner immediately suspected that sleep apnea may have played a part in Reggie’s death.

Do you snore loudly at night, and struggle with drowsiness during the day?

  • Yes - I know I sometimes snore, and I often feel drowsy during the day
  • No - I've been accused of being a loud snorer, but I don't think it's true
  • No - I'm sure I don't snore, and I'm usually very alert all day
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Reggie had struggled with his breathing during sleep for years

Sara recalls that Reggie had been a heavy snorer during their entire life together. His breathing would often stop during sleep and then start up again. These are classic symptoms of sleep apnea.

A sleep study confirmed that Reggie was indeed suffering from the disorder. But apparently neither he nor his family realized just how dangerous sleep apnea can be.

Reggie White and Brett Favre presenting a Green Bay Packers jacket to President Clinton after winning Superbowl XXXI
Reggie White and Brett Favre presenting a Green Bay Packers jacket to President Clinton after winning Superbowl XXXI | Source

What is sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a very serious medical condition that causes a person to stop breathing in their sleep. This can occur hundreds of times throughout the night, causing the sufferer to briefly awake each time gasping for air. OSA occurs when throat muscles relax during sleep, allowing soft tissue in the throat to collapse and block the passage of air.

Sleep apnea can lead to early death

According to Frisca Yan-Go, medical director of the UCLA Sleep Disorder Center at Santa Monica Hospital, sleep apnea is not itself a killer. But it has been found to be a major contributing factor to health risks that do kill, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke. People with untreated sleep apnea have a mortality rate three times that of those who don't have the condition.

Most victims of sleep apnea don't know they have it

Perhaps the most dangerous thing about sleep apnea is that most people don't realize that their symptoms of loud snoring at night and sleepiness during the day indicate the presence of a life-threatening but treatable condition. According to Dr. Bruce B. Baird, founder of the Dental Organization for Sleep Apnea, 95 percent of those who suffer from sleep apnea don't realize they have it.

Reggie did realize he had sleep apnea, and sought treatment. But he was not able to use the most effective remedy, CPAP therapy.

CPAP treatment for sleep apnea is highly effective

CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) therapy uses a machine that restores an sleep apnea sufferer's air flow by injecting positive air pressure into the patient's throat through a mask, forcing the blocked passages to open. When a CPAP machine is used consistently, it is highly effective in eliminating most of the adverse effects of sleep apnea.

According to Reggie's wife Sara, he was unable to use a CPAP machine because his claustrophobia did not allow him to sleep with the CPAP mask on his face.

That’s not unusual. In one study, 45 percent of those for whom CPAP therapy was prescribed discontinued the treatment because of the discomfort they experienced.

A CPAP Machine
A CPAP Machine | Source

There are treatment alternatives for those who can’t use CPAP

But now there are a number of alternatives that provide relief at a level similar to that provided by use of a CPAP machine. They range from upper airway surgery to an implanted device that provides electrical stimulation of the upper airway. Even dentists can now prescribe oral appliances to relieve sleep apnea for those who cannot use CPAP.

Sara, who became the cofounder of the Reggie White Sleep Disorders Foundation, says she is convinced that had Reggie known about these oral appliances for sleep apnea, he might still be alive today.

Snoring loud at night and drowsy during the day? Get tested for sleep apnea!

There are millions of us who share the condition Reggie had. But we don't have to share his fate. Not if we heed the warning that’s implicit in the words of Keith Johnson, head of Christian Athletes United for Spiritual Empowerment, a ministry that Reggie helped found.

"A 43-year-old is not supposed to die in his sleep," said Johnson. "It was not only unexpected, but it was also a complete surprise. Reggie wasn't a sick man ... he was vibrant. He had lots and lots of energy, lots of passion."

The lesson of Reggie White's tragic death is that sleep apnea, when it goes untreated, can lead directly to very dangerous, potentially lethal health consequences, even in people who are otherwise in apparently excellent health.

If you have the characteristic symptoms of OSA, loud snoring and awakening multiple times during the night, along with sleepiness during the day, please go immediately to your doctor and get tested for sleep apnea! It just might save your life.

© 2014 Ronald E. Franklin

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27 comments

aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 2 years ago from American Southwest

Thank you for a respectful article about one of my heroes and good guidance on what to do about sleep apnea.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, aethelthryth. I hope Reggie's accomplishments, both on and especially off the field, will never be forgotten.


ologsinquito profile image

ologsinquito 2 years ago from USA

This article needs to spread, because it has the potential to save lives. Voted up, shared and pinned.


mdscoggins profile image

mdscoggins 2 years ago from Fresno, CA

Thank you Ron for acknowledging this disorder in such a great and powerful man. Reggie was truly an icon of the game and truly missed by many. This article is the proof that even the toughest guy in the NFL was no match for sleep apnea and that it is important to get tested and treatment. Voted up and shared.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, ologsinquito. My experience is that many people are either totally ignorant concerning OSA, or in denial about their symptoms. You're so right, the word needs to get out.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks so much, mdscoggins. One of the important lessons of this story, I think, is that Reggie seemed to be in good health, except for his breathing issue. I hope others with similar symptoms will take warning from Reggie's tragedy.


Hezekiah profile image

Hezekiah 2 years ago from Japan

Very interesting topic and very a very scary thought. Does it have anything to do with weight? I lost around 15kg over the year or so and get better sleep with less snoring.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Hi Hezekiah. Yes, OSA is definitely related to weight. And your experience is right on target - losing weight often does reduce the snoring and the obstruction. Thanks for reading.


Dip Mtra profile image

Dip Mtra 2 years ago from World Citizen

Thanks for the lovely article.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thank you, Dip Mtra.


Lady Lorelei profile image

Lady Lorelei 2 years ago from Canada

My brother in law suffers from sleep apnea and it is terrifying to think that your heart simply stops while you sleep. Very frightening.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Hi Lady Lorelei. What happened to Reggie is unusual. Most sleep apnea sufferers don't die in their sleep, but many succumb to other conditions that were caused or exacerbated by the sleep apnea. I hope your brother is getting treatment. It's very effective these days. Thanks for reading and commenting.


brakel2 profile image

brakel2 2 years ago from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Hi Ron - I have mild sleep apnea, but I hate it. I sleep with pillows and my bed raised. I don't snore as much as I used to, so maybe it's better. Thank you for drawing peoples' attention to this problem and the solutions. I have a friend who has trouble sleeping with the equipment. I did not know the cause of death for Reggie White, but what a loss at such a young age. Sharing hub. Blessings, Audrey


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Audrey. I certainly understand your hating having sleep apnea. Before I started using a CPAP, my nights were so bad I sometimes dreaded going to bed. I hope your friend won't give up on the CPAP. It does take some getting used to, and for some it will never be really comfortable. But even when there's discomfort, most people sleep better with it than without it.


Sparrowlet profile image

Sparrowlet 2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

This is a scary article, but good for alerting people who may not realize they have this condition. I suffer from sleep apnea, as do both my parents and two of my brothers (it does often run in families). I use my CPAP faithfully every time I sleep, but it is still a worry. Informative article and so sad about Reggie, who left us much much too early.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Sparrowlet. I don't think you have to worry. When people are faithful in using their CPAP, it's usually highly effective at controlling the effects of sleep apnea. I would think the good thing about being in a family of sleep apnea sufferers is that you have plenty of support and encouragement to stay with it. That's the most important thing.


techygran profile image

techygran 2 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

Hi Ron-- Thanks for another great article! I'm going to suggest it as reading for someone I know. I also wrote a hub of a similar nature for folks who want to stop snoring but are intimidated by devices and surgery ... there are ways, but they do, of course, require a little more regular, consistent, hands-on effort than CPAP or surgery. Voted Up and sharing! ~Cynthia


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks so much, Cynthia. CPAP is a very effective treatment. But many people who are prescribed CPAP therapy find the mask and machine so uncomfortable they give up on using it. As you indicate, alternatives to CPAP that are effective in relieving the effects of sleep apnea are something people need to know about.


favored profile image

favored 2 years ago from USA

Awareness is such a critical thing when it comes to this disorder. Thank you for this article and I hope it causes people to take there symptoms seriously.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, favored. For some reason I didn't see an email informing me of your comment, so I'm very late replying. But I really appreciate you reading.


old albion profile image

old albion 23 months ago from Lancashire. England.

Hi Ron. An excellent article. I am now 70 years old. I need a machine to breath when lying down due to a muscle wasting condition. The machine can take many months to get used to, it is essential that the wearer perseveres with the wearing of the mask. Another first class hub.

Graham.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 23 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Hi, Graham. Sounds like your machine is CPAP-like. Certainly CPAP users have the same issue of needing to persevere in using the machine until they become comfortable with the mask. Sadly, many give up rather quickly and never gain the benefits. Thanks much for your comment.


lyoness913 profile image

lyoness913 18 months ago from Overland Park, KS

My husband has very bad sleepapnea and probably stops breathing 100 times a night, and he snores so loud I always have to wear ear plugs. He won't get a test done. He needs to lose weight. His apnea/snoring goes away when he loses weight. This article is a very good way to alert people about how dangerous this can be, voted up. Good job!


Nikki D. Felder profile image

Nikki D. Felder 14 months ago from Castle Hayne, N.C.

Excellent and informative piece. My family use Cpap machines. I snore, but have not ever had a study or even problems sleeping...


alheb 14 months ago

She should not have poked him.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 11 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

lyoness913, I really hope your husband gets tested. He has all the warning signs of a potentially serious problem.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 11 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Nikki, CPAP can literally be a lifesaver. I'm glad your family is making use of it. Do be careful about your own snoring. Before I was tested, I didn't think I had a sleep problem. The sleep study showed me I was very wrong about that.

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