Sleep Disorders

At 17 years old, Peter Polanksy was ranked No. 1 on Canada's junior tennis circuit, but his rank was put into jeopardy earlier this year when his own sleep nearly killed him.

Marlene Nobrega, a sports medicine expert traveling with the team says her phone rang at 12:30 at night, she says the caller said, "You must come now. A guest has fallen."

Nobrega got another phone call, from the team captain who was screaming into the phone, "Nobrega, it's Peter. Come now."

Polansky had just jumped out his hotel window. Nobrega was one of the first on the scene.

"It [the window] was shut. So he turned his back to the glass and then kicked it out. And as he was kicking it out, he fell out the window backwards," Nobrega said. It was a three-story window.

"I guess he tried to sit up and he saw that he was bleeding. He saw the pool of blood on the ground and then Polansky just started screaming, 'You have to help me I'm dying!'"

Seriously wounded but still conscious, Polansky told Nobrega what he could remember.

"He said he thought someone was in his room attacking him. And he tried to get away," Nobrega said.

But when hotel security investigated, they found that no one had entered or left the room -- except Polansky.

What would cause Polansky to panic so violently? To break a window and throw himself out of it? Miraculously, Polansky survived after a hedge cushioned his fall.

Polansky recalls, "I looked at my legs -- it was just to cut open, like a grapefruit is. I couldn't believe it."

Polansky says he remembers what terrified him so badly that he almost took his own life.

"Uh, well, I saw like a black figure, with like a knife just standing by my bed, towards where the door was. I said to myself, 'I need to get away,'" he said.

It was all a dream that drove him out a three story window. It turns out, Polansky nearly sleep-walked to his death.

"Sleep disorders are incredibly more prevalent than most people used to believe," said Dr. Mark Mahowald, one of the world's experts on sleep disorders.

Mahowald says he's almost certain Polansky was sleepwalking the night of accident.

"Sleep terrors are characterized often by a sense of impending doom and a need to escape. And that's why people head toward windows," Mahowald said.

Stages of Sleep

Normally, when we sleep we pass through three stages:

Wakefulness, when the brain is active, but the muscles start to relax.

Non-REM sleep, when the brain waves slowdown, but the muscles are still active.

REM sleep, when the brain activity returns to just as active as when a person is awake, yet there is a complete paralysis of voluntary muscles.

But Mahowald says these stages can blend into each other, causing people to sleepwalk and have fatal accidents that are wrongly labeled suicide. He calls these fatal accidents "pseudo-suicide."

That's how Becky Allgood says she lost her son 21-year-old son Jarod, back in 1993, to sleepwalking.

"Never in my wildest dreams -- would I ever think I would lose a child to this disease. Never," Allgood said.

Jarod had "sprint(ed) into the path" of a semi on Highway 30 just south of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He died instantly.

Police started asking Jarod's college roommate, Jeff Harris, questions.

"I was in total shock when it happened. He didn't have any enemies, so I didn't think it was anything foul play, [no drinking, no drugs] that would have done it," Harris said.

Harris says the police were asking him if Jarod was depressed.

Jarod's mother says she had already ruled out depression and suicide.

Dream and Reality Collide

If not suicide, then what had prompted Jarod to walk, in just boxer shorts in the middle of winter, a quarter-mile from his college apartment onto a four lane highway?

Harris told Jarod's mother that he had been dreaming recently.

"He had a dream that some guys was chasing him and he just had to get to Bertram," he said.

Allgood says she's familiar with that recurring dream. "He was running a race with a man from Bertram. And Bertram was down that road."

That's when Allgood realized that Jarod's dream and his reality had collided.

Although, it's impossible to know with any certainty what was going through Jarod's brain when he ran toward his death, evidence suggests that sleepwalkers may have a heightened pain threshold.

Allgood says his son would even get sick in his sleep and never wake up.

"There have been instances where people have actually shot themselves in the leg while sleepwalking and it wasn't 'til the sleepwalking was over that they realized that they'd injured themselves. So, pain is generally not perceived or minimally perceived during sleep," Mahawold said.

Though Mahawold believed Jarod's behavior that night was consistent with sleepwalking, local authorities were skeptical and there were reports around town that Jarod had committed suicide.

But when Jarod's mother told the coroner that she thought it was sleepwalking, she said the coroner responded, "Only children sleepwalk."

So Jarod's actual death certificate read "undetermined."

Jarod's mother says she argued over the death certificate.

"I said, 'No. It needs to say, uh, 'hit by a truck while sleepwalking. And you need to say in there, why he died,'" she said.

That's when Becky called in Mahowald to help her make her case.

Family History of Sleepwalking

According to Mahowald, the primary determinant of whether someone is going to be a sleepwalker or not is a positive family history. Allwood says all of her kids were sleepwalkers.

Jarod's sleep history, his fateful dreams and his mother's persistence eventually convinced Iowa's Chief Medical Examiner to make a bold decision. Jarod's official cause of death was changed ... to "sleepwalking."

"I believe that it's the first death certificate that's ever -- in this state -- even acknowledged sleep disorders," Allwood said.

Since nearly 4 percent of adults in America sleepwalk, experts now believe there may be other sleepwalking deaths that have been labeled suicide.