In Search of The Mask


No, it is not a sequel to Jim Carrey’s movie, although it is almost as funny.

While I was away for the holidays, my CPAP mask split. Fortunately it happened towards the end of the holiday, and I managed to make a running repair, which got me through the last couple of days. I keep a couple spare at home, so once I got back, I was fine.

However, I’ll now use it as an opportunity to rant about the medical supplies industry in the UK.
I suffer from sleep apnoea, which is a medical condition where the wind pipe can close during sleep. This means you choke a bit, and wake up a bit, although you seldom actually regain consciousness. So you go through the night not quite getting into deep sleep; if the condition remains undiagnosed, this continues for weeks, months or years, and you become a physical wreck through lack of sleep.

My condition was diagnosed several years ago, and I was given a CPAP (Continual Positive Air Pressure) machine and mask. The mask is a little nose mask, which blows air into my airway while I sleep, keeping it all open. With the machine, I get a perfect night’s sleep, and have the energy to get up and go during the day, do my stuff and try to get fit again.

The mask I was first given was the cheapest of the cheap, apparently; there were more expensive masks available, with "silicon pillows", but the cheap one worked for me – it did everything I needed it to, and was comfortable.

Years went by, and occasionally I would have to ask the folk at Papworth Hospital (who are great, by the way!) for a replacement mask or hose, as they wore out. Sometimes I would pop over there (it isn’t far), but they were happy to pop replacements in the post.

Then a couple of years back, I asked if I could have a replacement mask, only to be told "Sorry, we don’t do that one any more". They supplied me with a new mask, which I simply didn’t get on with – I couldn’t get used to it, and it leaked air against my face. So the tried me with a different mask, which was also no good. Each time I rejected a mask, it had to be thrown away, of course, and these modern masks are expensive.

I asked why they no longer did the cheap old-style masks, and was told "they don’t make them any more".

Finally, desperate for a solution, I got onto the web, and discovered I could buy the exact same (cheap) mask from the US. They are still manufactured, they are just not available on the NHS, or anywhere in the UK, it seems.

So now I buy them in (with a note from my GP) from the States, 2 or 3 at a time, to save on postage. Putting it in perspective, even with transatlantic postage, these masks are still less than half the price of 1 of the modern marvels.

So why has the cheaper mask been discontinued in the UK, but not in the US? I don’t know for certain, but I think it is something like this. In the UK, the NHS fund both the CPAP machine and the consumables (I am probably one of the few people who buys his own). So for the manufacturers, there is no point in having a cheap option, if – by discontinuing it – they can sell a high tech expensive item to the NHS instead. In the US, however, there are plenty of people who have to pay for their own medical care, and who can’t afford the expensive option, so it makes sense to sell them the cheap mask.

When I last had an appointment at Papworth, the technician’s eyes lit up on seeing my mask – her eyes lit up: "Where did you get that from?" I told her, and gave her the URL. She was quite interested, as it seems I am not the only one to find the old-style masks more comfortable.

That was about 6 months ago. Now I am down to one spare mask, I just called Papworth to see if they were able to supply the Respironics Contour mask. I was told "No, they are not manufactured any more."

I guess I better get another order in.

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