This interview of George T. Nierenberg, director of a documentary on OSA, shows how the film “Out of Breath” aims to change public perception about OSA, and spotlights the choices that patients have made for treatment of their individual needs.
by Lisa Moler
There are millions of people worldwide who are not aware that they are suffering from OSA, never mind that there are treatments available to them to ease their suffering. One of those was documentary film director George T. Nierenberg. DSP sat down to learn more about how he’s using his unique talents to bring the message to the public, and to our profession.
DSP: George, tell us about how you, a filmmaker, became interested in making a movie about a medical condition, sleep apnea.
GN: Throughout my adult life, I had classic symptoms: snoring, falling asleep at work, social events, even at the wheel. I was depressed, easily agitated, often irritable – not the amiable person I wanted to be. I was told I had an underactive thyroid for years. When I finally got diagnosed with sleep apnea, I couldn’t tolerate the CPAP and underwent the other option I was given: excruciating UPPP surgery. That didn’t work, either. Finally, five years ago, I tried a dental appliance and, at last, found relief.
DSP: OK, so what’s your goal?
GN: My films have reached wide audiences, have had a long-lasting impact, and have changed public opinion. When I discovered that I was one of a billion people who suffer from this crippling disease, I wanted to use the humanistic approach to filmmaking that I’d developed over my career to change public perception about this highly misunderstood disease. People need to be diagnosed and know what choices they have so they can be advocates for their own best treatment. This is what spearheaded the birth of the Out of Breath documentary film project three years ago.
DSP: What’s going to happen with your film? Netflix?
GN: My team of esteemed producers, advisors, and I want to create a movement with the film. We’ll reach a broad international audience through festivals, theatrical, TV broadcast, digital and educational releases, along with an aggressive outreach campaign that targets communities and organizations through public and private screenings and panel discussions with health care professionals.
DSP: Tell me more about Out of Breath.
GN: My goal is always to engage viewers emotionally as they connect with the film’s subjects. The influence of my films, such as Say Amen Somebody which received widespread international acclaim, is felt to this day. Out of Breath will tell the story of a diverse group of people who have opened their homes, businesses, and families to let us share their emotions as they attempt to loosen the grip sleep apnea has had on their lives. They chronicled their journey 24/7 for over a year and a half, under my direction. My team and I are constantly inspired by the people we’ve met. Here’s a sneak preview of some of their stories:
Kalyn is an animated 23-year-old who is moving in with her fiancée, but she has never been able to bring herself to share her diagnosis…or her CPAP, which has been hidden in the closet since they first met. The joys of her relationship are overshadowed by her fear that it may not survive in the face of her sleep apnea. She’s exploring whether orthodontics can improve her ability to breathe.
Keyonna is a courageous 28-year-old, whose escape from an abusive marriage landed her in a homeless shelter. She is plagued by exhaustion but has had no idea why. Despite it all, through will and determination, she managed to become a supervisor of a T-Mobile store and to buy her own car and home. But her constant exhaustion causes her to fall asleep at the dinner table or while trying to help her young daughter with homework. Seeking out medical care for low blood pressure, she finally finds out she has OSA.
Victor, who consistently wakes up in the middle of the night to find his CPAP off and his wife downstairs on the couch, where she flees in such instances, as he puts it, “to find sanctuary from” his wall-shaking snoring. His sleep apnea is crippling his ability to function in his cement business and is putting enormous stress on his marriage. And when he develops Covid, it is exacerbated by his sleep apnea and threatens his very life.
My team and I are constantly inspired by the people we’ve met.
DSP: These stories are so real. How did you get them to be so open?
GN: The unique approach I’ve taken in this film of collecting the personal footage shot by the characters themselves at all hours of the day or night under my direction has created the opportunity to follow these people with an unprecedented level of intimacy, thus humanizing the struggles and the stigma that come with sleep apnea. This makes the film accessible and appealing to a broad audience and enables viewers to recognize OSA in themselves and/or loved ones. The film will also show them that the CPAP is not their only treatment option; they can turn to dentists for an alternative treatment, as I did. It will help viewers see that taking such action is imperative: our hope is that Out of Breath will show that OSA is far more serious than snoring; it can lead to the devastation of lives, families, careers, and health leading to strokes, diabetes, heart failure and even death. It can – and has – caused deadly car crashes and train wrecks. Action is necessary.
DSP: You said the movie will be aimed at professionals, too.
GN: The broad reach of the film will open lines of communication between the currently siloed healthcare professionals so that they can work together toward providing the best care for their patients, finding new solutions. Further, it will help infuse the field with new experts and funders eager to fight this disease…all of which, in turn, will further expand patient awareness. Our goal is to create a level of awareness that will empower people to take action and conquer this currently silent and insidious disease.
DSP: How can readers get involved?
GN: I welcome members of the healthcare community to join our effort to raise public awareness. For more information, view our trailer and make a 100% tax-deductible contribution, visit www.sleepapneafilm.com. For a $2,500 donation, you will receive a branded trailer for your practice. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.