Health Team

Franklin family spreads warning about sleep aids, side effects

Posted September 9, 2013
Updated September 10, 2013

Sleep aids are some of the most common types of prescription drugs in the United States, despite known side effects that can see users walking, eating and even driving while asleep.

Jennifer Merson, of Franklin County, knows the tragic costs of those side effects.

Merson said her father, Bill Willis, was prescribed a generic form of the sleep-aid Zolpidem after her mother, his wife of 25 years, died from lung disease.

"When he went to the doctor, he told him he was having a great deal of trouble sleeping, and that he could hear her screaming, calling for him night after night," Merson said.

Willis' primary care doctor prescribed the drug, which is known by brand names such as Ambien and Zolpimist. 

Merson was painting her dad's upstairs bathroom while he was sleeping the night of May 10.

"He yelled up for me, and he asked where his car keys were," she said, "And I had actually told him myself that they were on the bar."

Willis left the house without saying goodbye, wearing his pajamas, and drove for 7 miles beyond his Lake Royale home.

 Family shares warning about sleep aid effects

"He made it all the way until he was supposed to take a left hand turn towards Louisburg, and instead he just continued straight," Merson said. "When he came to a bend in the road, he just continued straight."

Willis' car barreled into a tree and burst into flames, killing him. A toxicology report showed he had taken Zolpidem as well as a pain reliever, hydrocodone.

His daughters, Merson and Corie Willis, left a memorial for him at the site, and now they want others to know about Zolpidem's risk.

"You can harm someone else while you're on this medication as well as harm yourself," Merson warned.

The side effects are relatively rare, said Dr. Adnan Perez. "But these medications being commonly prescribed as they are, they do come up from time to time."

Perez, a pulmonologist at Rex Hospital, says patients with insomnia should be fully evaluated for underlying conditions before a drug like Zolpidem is prescribed.

"Once a sleep aid is prescribed, it is recommended that it be for as short a duration as possible," he added.

Willis' daughters would rather he still be dealing with insomnia rather than the tragic loss they now bear.

"I just want others to know, that I don't want them to experience the hurt and the pain that I have and that my family has," Merson said. 

The presence of the pain reliever hydrocodone blurs the blame a little bit in Willis' case, according to Dr. Allen Mask. 

"The important point is that people who have chronic insomnia – three or more nights a week for months – should see a sleep disorders specialist and get fully evaluated for underlying conditions like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and so forth," Mask said.

"Cognitive behavior therapy may also help improve sleep habits. That may be combined with a sleep aid. If so, there needs to be a long discussion about the potential side effects. Also important: your loved ones should be made aware that you are on the medication so they can monitor your behavior," Mask said.


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  • DontVote4LiarsCheatsOrThieves Sep 16, 2013

    jmerson27 -

    I am truly sorry for your loss.

  • DontVote4LiarsCheatsOrThieves Sep 16, 2013

    Raleighlynn - "What a tragedy. I have been taking a fairly high dose of Ambien for ten years now (20 mg. at night). I have never had any odd side effects."

    Am blessed for you. It never helped me at all other than to give me violent nightmares.

  • DontVote4LiarsCheatsOrThieves Sep 16, 2013

    I've had insomnia since I was a small child. I took Ambien for a while, and it gave me strange violent nightmares, so I stopped it.

    When I first started taking it long ago, the fact sheet accompanying the RX said it was an anti-psychotic. Now if someone isn't psychotic to begin with, I wonder how that affects one's psyche, if at all. Some doctors prescribe as a sleep aid, but all the research says it's only for short-term use. (Some doctors are also prescribing it for Fibromyalgia.)

    Since this man was having nightmares to begin with, I question whether this was the RIGHT medication for him to be given in the first place.

    Here's some research that shows ER visits due to this drug increased 220% from 2005 to 2010. 74% of those were people more than 45 years of age.

    January 2013, the FDA told pharmaceutical companies to reduce the dosage for woman to half strength. I wonder if the doctors know that too.

    Scary stuff!!!

  • raleighlynn Sep 16, 2013

    What a tragedy. I have been taking a fairly high dose of Ambien for ten years now (20 mg. at night). I have never had any odd side effects. Ambien is just like any other drug with side effects (opiates, benzos). Some people shouldn't take Ambien. But for people like me, with chronic insomnia, it's a godsend.

  • tierneemalinadeveaux Sep 16, 2013

    Jmerson27, I am so sorry for your family's loss. I just turned down the opportunity to have Ambien prescribed for me today. I just don't like the idea of taking something to make me sleep on a regular basis, even though I do have a lot of trouble sleeping.
    I have found that if I take a 15-20 minute nap sometime during the midday hours, it helps a lot, and that keeps me from being so drowsy while behind the wheel in the evening.
    Thanks again for sharing your story, and my deepest condolences to you and your family.

  • Whosays Sep 11, 2013

    jmerson27, I did not mean to sound unsympathetic, but WRAL made it sound like he took the hydrocodone and the Ambien together. Prayers for you family.

  • jmerson27 Sep 11, 2013

    Thank you all so much for your positive comments. They all truly mean so much. As to the people who take Zolpidem and have no problem I'm sincerely happy for you that you haven't experienced any side effects. That's what makes this world go round... everyone is different and experience different effects. Everyone is titled to their own opinions here, its called freedom of speech. I'm not going to battle with others or make rude comments, I'm here to make my parents proud and my parents alone as well as hopefully help others that may have experienced similar effects and for them to know their aren't alone. You do not know what your capable of whole heartily while under this medication. That's the point I'm trying to make here. I didn't get the chance to see him. He talked completely normal and it was not in the middle of the night. Trust me if I would have known I would have stopped him. So quick to judge without all the facts here.

  • golorealist Sep 11, 2013

    jmerson27 - jmerson, thanks for telling your story here. i have suffered from insomnia off and on for decades. i was prescribed ambien about 10 years ago and had some of the side effects from it. i never did the sleep driving thing, but i did sleep walk for the first time in my life while taking it. i'm sorry to hear about your father, and i pray that you can find peace.

  • golorealist Sep 11, 2013

    "My husband take's the same prescriptions and has for years. He has NEVER had one problem. " - IPayYouPay

    just because one person take a drug without a problem doesn't mean other people don't suffer from side effects. good for you and your husband.

    "And, btw, if he decides to go out in the middle of the night like that, I'M NOT GOING TO LET HIM. HINT! HINT!" - IPayYouPay

    where in the article does it say "the middle of the night". like she explained below, she didn't even know he had already taken his prescription that night.

  • IPayYouPay Sep 11, 2013

    Ma'am, you should have asked, "Where in God's name are you going this time of night" and then STOPPED HIM. That's your fault, not the drug's fault.

    My husband take's the same prescriptions and has for years. He has NEVER had one problem. And, btw, if he decides to go out in the middle of the night like that, I'M NOT GOING TO LET HIM. HINT! HINT!