Editor’s intro: Shaquille O’Neal’s sleep apnea awareness is helping others to recognize that their symptoms may indicate a life-threatening condition. Read Lisa Moler’s interview with this basketball Hall of Famer, and how his journey to wellness and Sleep Certified are having a positive effect on the sleep dentistry community.
Watch the interview
MedMark Media Founder and DSP Publisher Lisa Moler sits down with Basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal to discuss his struggle with OSA and how he is fulfilling his dream of spreading awareness of this life-threatening condition.
Shaquille O’Neal’s powerful athleticism and personality have made him one of the world’s most recognized celebrities. He undoubtedly is an MVP, and now has added MVS (Most Valuable Sleeper) to his long list of accomplishments. He met with MedMark Media Publisher Lisa Moler to speak candidly about his personal issues with sleep and how he sought the help he needed for his sleep apnea.
Lisa: I know that you derive inspiration from quotes. Which ones have been “life changing,” and why?
Shaq: One of my favorite quotes is from General Dwight Eisenhower. “The greatest leaders are the ones smart enough to hire people smarter than them.” After I read that quote, that’s how I started handling my business affairs. I don’t know it all, but I do like to know people who know it all.
Lisa: Tell us about your sleep journey.
Shaq: Some years ago, I was part of a Harvard sleep apnea study. Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, who did a lot of research with sleep apnea, let me know the warning signs, and that I had severe sleep apnea. At the time, I thought, ‘I’m Shaq; it’s not going to happen to me. I am one of the world’s greatest athletes to ever play the game.’
Sleep apnea is very serious. I know for a fact that I stop breathing 72 times per hour. I love sleeping on my back, and my tongue falls back and blocks my airway. Every now and then I’d wake up panting. I’m 47, have six children, and I’m starting to come on the other side of the hill. The ‘D-word’ always scares me, so to prevent it, I’m trying to do better. I had all the toys like the CPAP machine, but I didn’t use it all the time.
Lisa: Your son, Shareef, snore-shamed you on social media! How did you feel about that?
Shaq: He caught me sleeping, and I am a heavy snorer, everyone knows I snore. Doctors say if you have an 18-inch neck or bigger, you probably will be a snorer and have sleep apnea. My neck is 21 inches, and therefore, I have struggled with this issue for a long time.
Lisa: Big, small, young, or old, sleep apnea doesn’t discriminate. It is an epidemic and a deadly disease. Bringing awareness through DSP has been my focus since I was diagnosed with sleep apnea 5 years ago. I completely fell out of bed one morning at 2 a.m. because I had stopped breathing. I had every symptom of a heart attack, and my brain didn’t wake me up until I fell. It was very scary. You said you tried a CPAP; what was your experience with that?
Shaq: It is just too loud. After working all day, when I sleep, I want complete darkness and silence. I have puppies and they know that when Daddy goes to sleep, don’t even wag your tail! Because of the sound of the air from the CPAP, even when I was tired, it would take me another hour to get to sleep. And then when I talked, I sounded like Darth Vader! I didn’t like it.
Lisa: Tell us how you finally came to be treated for sleep apnea, and why is it so important for you to spread the word on sleep apnea awareness?
Shaq: One day after retiring from basketball, I gave my mother a lot of gifts – my way of thanking her. She said, ‘I don’t want these, Baby; I love you very much. What have you done to brighten up someone else’s day?’ And it hit me; that’s my mission after I retire – make people smile and let them know I care about them. So this is my way to help.
A lot of times, you need that ‘higher voice’ to tell you. I didn’t pay attention, even when I was in the Harvard study, and then, I heard ‘the higher voice.’ One day, I was on Instagram, and someone sent me this really brash message – ‘Do you want to die?’ I thought the guy was threatening me. It was Dr. Jonathan Greenburg, who said, ‘You have sleep apnea.’ We started talking, and I went to his office. We discussed that when we stop breathing in the night, the heart has to work extra hard and, over the course of time, one day your heart is going to say, ‘I can’t handle this anymore.’ He had a device called the ZYPPAH®. Basically, it is an oral appliance that stops your tongue from falling back and blocking your airway. With this device, I get nice uninterrupted REM sleep.
So, now, if I can be the higher voice to help people be aware, then, that’s what it’s all about. People ask me what I want to be remembered for, and the answer is simple; I just want people to say Shaq was a nice guy. No one cares about what I invested in. People will remember that when they met Mr. O’Neal, he was nice to their kids – end of story.
Lisa: Thanks for joining us, Dr. Greenburg, what made you contact Shaq and offer him your help?
Dr. Greenburg: Many people think, as Shaq did, ‘It is not going to happen to me.’ The impact of sleep apnea – strokes, heart attacks, the correlation with Alzheimer’s, and the fact that these people have a 4 times increased risk of cancer (as some studies are now showing), this is no joke, and yet so many people are not being treated. If we don’t get a good night’s sleep, we wake up grouchy; we snap at people; we’re not very nice or friendly, but if we get a good night’s rest, our nature is different – we’re patient, understanding, giving and, on top of that, we are also adding quality and years to people’s lives. I couldn’t think of a better person than Shaquille to help change the planet for the better.
Lisa: Dr. Greenburg, tell us about how your company, Sleep Certified, is working to change the trajectory of OSA in our country?
We are educating the public, creating that demand for treatment, and then, training the dentists to treat those patients properly and at the highest level. To achieve those goals, we created Sleep Certified® (sleepcertified.com), an online educational platform that trains dentists and their staff on how to treat sleep apnea at a high level. Sleep Certified creates nine levels of certification so that we can be very transparent with the consumer on the dentists’ expertise level, not only on their training, but also on their five-star reviews. The patients can go online to our Sleep Certified map, see what level that dentist has achieved, and then, choose the best dentist for them. That’s the whole goal – to be able to provide an inexpensive and accessible platform and to bring those dentists training so that they can actually handle the influx of patients they will be seeing. We are incredibly excited. This is about changing people’s lives.
Lisa: Shaq, there are not a lot of celebrities who say, ‘I have this issue,’ and bring it to people’s attention like you did.
Shaq: I’m not a celebrity – just a young kid that listened to his parents.
Lisa: Just a regular guy! I am so excited to be on this journey with you, and hope we can get together again and have another chat.
It is truly ALL of our missions to help educate our dental audience on the importance of properly diagnosing OSA, what to look for in breathing-airway issues, delivering proper treatment, and just how critical your everyday role is in helping to save lives. Join the team, become the MVP of your practice, and put some serious Shaq-style slam dunk on this epidemic! And, as always, for all information on dental sleep, please visit DentalSleepPractice.com. And for more information on Dr Greenburg and Sleep Certified, please go to www.sleepcertified.com.
Keep making our world smile!
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Shaquille O’Neal’s sleep apnea is not only confined to basketball athletes. Read about the challenges football players face as well in “Pro NFL players tackle sleep apnea.”