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Taking Action for your Health: Hampton teen sees narcolepsy relief from sleep therapy at CHKD

Posted at 6:12 PM, Dec 03, 2014

Most of us are familiar with the classic fairytale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But what happens when the dreams become nightmares? For one Hampton teen named Snow White, that’s her reality.

“It impacted a lot. It would like, all my grades dropped, I thought I was being lazy, so I was really depressed, becoming depressed, and I would go home and sleep even more,” Snow says.

An aspiring fashion designer, 17-year-old Snow stepped into the sleep clinic at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters a few years ago. She was excessively sleeping and having strange hallucinations.

“So when I met her, she was very, very sleepy and we talked about all that. She was looking at me a little kind of out of the side of her eye. How did you know all that weird stuff is happening to me?” says Dr. Michael Strunc, Director of Sleep Medicine at CHKD.

Dr. Strunc explains that narcolepsy attacks the nervous system or the hypothalamus gland, which controls emotions and behavior. Because it’s so rare, it is commonly misdiagnosed or mistaken for laziness or depression – not only by doctors and teachers, but parents as well.

“I just thought she was being a typical teenager. She was sleeping all the time. Anywhere we went, she was always sleeping. We’d pull out the driveway and by the time we got there, she’d be asleep. She was inattentive at school and her grades were awful,” says Snow’s mother Alfreda.

Having such a detrimental impact on daily life, the profound sleepiness found in narcolepsy patients can rapidly drop from awake to sleep, leading to hallucinations.

“Because their brain’s sleep switch is kind of broken, they can swap in and out of awake and asleep,” Dr. Strunc says.

Narcolepsy patients like Snow also suffer paralysis and terrifying hallucinations while they’re awake.

“They may be in bed getting ready for sleep and see something, a shadow or a person or something on their bed that looks very real, and then look back and it’s not there,” says Dr. Strunc.

Narcolepsy is not curable but it can be treated successfully. First, a regular sleep routine is established and then prescription medications that help the patient sleep.

“Mainly those are medicines that either help your brain sleep at night or kind of force your brain into a sleep that is deep and restful, or medicines that help you stay awake during the day,” Dr. Strunc says.

And the sleep therapy has made a world of difference for our sleeping beauty.

“A lot of changes – my grades improved a lot, because I used to have F’s and D’s. and now I have C’s and B’s and I’m okay with that. And that’s pretty much it. I stopped a whole bunch. I can stay up in class now and focus now and learn something.

Narcolepsy affects one in 2,000 people and in many cases it’s hereditary.