A South African man named Ayanda Nqinana "woke up" from a seven-year coma after taking the sleeping pill Stilnox. A week after taking the pill, he is able to have long conversations, remember past events and recognize his family. He is reportedly the third person to have woken up from a coma with aid of the pill, and a significant number of patients with brain damage have shown improvement because of it.
In 2005, Nqinana, from Johannesburg, was driving down an Eastern Cape road when he crashed his car. Doctors said that the accident left him with severe brain injuries, and that he would most likely never recover. His wife Nomfundo said that his eyes could not move and would not follow a person in a room if they moved from one place to another.
But after reading about the effects of Stilnox in a local paper, she convinced doctors to give her husband the drug. The drug, and others that use zolpidem, has been used in various grim cases in the United States and the United Kingdom. The effects were nearly immediate.
Doctors are unsure why zolpidem works in these cases, and the discovery of this new use came about by accident. Eighteen years ago, a 24-year-old South African switchboard operator named Louis Vijoen was hit by a truck and descended into a coma. After five years, a doctor prescribed the drug to help with his involuntary muscle spasms. Vijoen spoke for the first time in years just 25 minutes after the sleep aid was administered to him. His doctor has since prescribed the drug to 150 patients with brain damage; he has seen improvement in 60 percent of cases.
But the drug's effects wear off after two hours, and many who take the drug must take it in multiple doses throughout the day - something that Sam Goddard knows all too well. Goddard can thank the drug for bringing him out of a coma induced by a stroke when he was 23 years old. After the progress from traditional rehabilitation efforts slowed, his fiancée Sally Nielson begged doctors to administer Stilnox. He regained the ability to speak, and reportedly called his parents and said, "I'm talking, I'm talking."
Goddard has since been able to leave the hospital and continues to take the drug. But, he says, he takes four doses a day, because the effects only last for an hour at a time. "It is very difficult to comprehend the fact that I can talk now and in an hour or I won't be able to talk at all," Goddard said to MSNBC last year. "It sucks."
Despite all this excitement, drugs with the zolpidem ingredient can have potentially dangerous side effects. Earlier this year, Kerry Kennedy, the late Robert F. Kennedy's daughter and New York governor Andrew Cuomo's ex-wife, was involved in a car accident that she blamed on an accidental dose of Ambien, which contains zolpidem. At the scene of the crime, police officers reported that she was swaying and slurring her speech. Former news anchor and current NBC News special correspondent Tom Brokaw went to the hospital last week after feeling lightheaded. He later reported that he had accidentally taken a half-dose of Ambien.