Rik Krohn tests sleep apnea device 2011.01.19

Written by David Green.

krohn.hisselfBy DAVID GREEN

It wasn’t a matter of skill or courage that  splashed Rik Krohn’s face across the pages of newspapers around the globe. He didn’t accomplish any great feat.

He just said, “I’ll do it.”

That’s how the Fayette native and former Morenci teacher describes his brush with fame in late December.

The newspaper accounts were mostly the same. It was only the headline writers that added some variation:

• Experiments test if implant can block sleep apnea

• Sleep trouble? Try an implant

• Snore-busting implant might get you more ZZZs

• Sleep apnea implants for tongue to be tested

• Implanting a good sleep

• Sleep apnea “pacemaker” zaps tongue for better sleep

• Tongue-zapper could treat sleep apnea

• Pacemaker for tongue may cure sleep apnea.

For Rik Krohn, 67, of suburban Minneapolis, there is no “may” about it. For the last year and a half, he ha slept through the night without the repetitious jolt of wakefulness that comes with sleep apnea.

The CPAP machine (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) is the most common approach for dealing with apnea. A small machine provides a flow of air into the lungs via a face mask. It’s great technology, Rik said, but wearing the mask isn’t for everyone.

After trying several different models over a period of six months, Rik finally gave up on the CPAP in 2008, but a few weeks later he read a newspaper article that caught his attention.

“The business section had a little piece about a company that was looking to start testing a device for curing sleep apnea for people who couldn’t manage more intrusive methods like CPAP,” he said.

He contacted the manufacturer and learned that testing hadn’t yet begun, but he was provided with the name of the physician who was coordinating the effort.

“They brought me into the study and I was the first person in the country,” Rik said.

That was a year and a half ago and he’s one happy guinea pig.

“It really did the job for me,” he said. “It totally took the sleep apnea away.”

Rik wasn’t simply after a good night’s sleep. He had other concerns. It’s true that sleep apnea can leave a person feeling exhausted after a poor night of sleep, but the condition also robs the heart and brain of oxygen.

“I had a heart attack 20 years ago and sleep apnea is pretty hard on your heart,” Rik explained. “My heart’s had enough trouble. I don’t want to give it any more grief.

“With sleep apnea, you’re not breathing in the middle of the night. After 10, 20, 30, 40 seconds of that, your brain shoots out adrenalin and wakes you up just enough to make your muscles tense and let’s you breathe.”

Rik had an apnea score of 35. This means, on the average, his breathing stopped 35 times an hour.

“That’s not a healthy thing for a heart,” he said.

The device Rik uses stimulates the hypoglossal nerve that leads to the tongue. One of the main causes of apnea is over-relaxation of the tongue and throat muscles. Breathing is blocked until a person finally jerks awake with a gasp.

The new device is similar to a pacemaker. It’s implanted under the skin near the collarbone, with wires leading up to the hypoglossal nerve. A sensor determines when a breath is taken and the implant lightly zaps the tongue—not enough to make it stick out, but just to keep it firm.

It’s controlled by a small hand-held remote. Rik sets his implant to turn on after a 20-minute delay. He falls asleep, the impulses begin, and he never feels a thing throughout the night.

Wide-spread testing of the device is just getting underway, with 200 subjects in the United States and many more in other countries.

“With the start of the large study, they asked if I’d like to be interviewed,” Rik said, and that led to his name and photo appearing around the world.

He was delighted to help. There are at least 15 million people suffering from sleep apnea and probably the majority are not being treated.

But like the CPAP, it won’t be a cure-all.

“It’s not for everybody,” Rik said. “It’s surgery. A lot of people don’t really love knives.”

For many people the device will be nothing short of a medical miracle. In the first two weeks after the story was published, the manufacturer—Inspire Medical Systems—received more than a thousand inquiries.

“This could make a big difference in a lot of lives,” Rik said, and he’s thankful to be one of them.


Rik Krohn left teaching for a career in science


The sleep apnea implant was invented by the Medtronic company—inventor of the heart pacemaker in the 1950s.

“They’re pretty sharp,” Rik Krohn said. “I always thought it would be kind of cool to work for them, but I always ended up with other companies.”

The Gorham-Fayette graduate’s first job out of college brought him to Morenci where he taught chemistry and other science classes for two years, starting in 1965.

He soon realized he didn’t want to teach science; he wanted to do science.

He left Morenci to take a job with Battelle in Columbus, Ohio. Battelle is now known as the world’s largest, independent research and development organization.

The Xerox machine, cut resistant golf balls, the UPC code, cruise control for automobiles, compact disk technology, no-melt chocolate—the company has pioneered a wide range of products.

After three years with Battelle, Rik came up with the idea for text search software. This was 40 years ago when a computer was a rather large machine that took up a good portion of a room.

Battelle does a lot of work with metallurgy and Rik created software in the early 1970s to load every document that came along about the subject. The system created a database about copper, a database about radiation effects, etc. Researchers from around the world could tie into the database for search purposes.

The search package was eventually sold to several companies. After 10 years with Battelle, one of the companies that bought the software asked Rik if he would like to work with them to further develop the capabilities of the process. That company was Control Data, a computer manufacturer in Minneapolis.

Control Data Corporation was forming a new company to offer litigation support—the application of computers in the litigation process.

If one large company sues another, millions of pages of documents get passed back and forth, Rik said, and they don’t all get thoroughly studied.

Attorneys from one side are looking for the “smoking gun” that will aid their claim; attorneys from the other side hope it won’t be found. Software to help search the documents could make the difference.

Control Data entered the field when it sued IBM in an anti-trust case. All the documents were computerized—something new in those days—and IBM lost the suit.

The data base was destroyed as part of the settlement, but Control Data rebuilt it at the request of the government and that launched a new business—a business that Rik Krohn has been part of since 1977.

“I’ve been writing software and consulting with lawyers ever since,” he said.

His son is now doing the same, but as an attorney working from the consulting side rather than the computer technology side.

The litigation support software Rik developed is still sold through the Canadian company Open Text and is used by several companies and governments. It played a large role in the federal lawsuit against the tobacco companies.

“It’s been used by major companies for 40 years now,” he said. “Basically it’s used for scientific purposes, but we use it for litigation.”

He now works for Kroll Ontrack developing tools for corporate investigations in a field known as electronic discovery or eDiscovery.

It’s been an interesting career for a boy from Fayette.

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