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.
"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.