Ambien Gives Hope to Coma Patients

ByMIKE VON FREMD via via logo

July 12, 2006— -- George Melendez was a driven young man with a passion for baseball and played on his college's varsity team. His life came to a standstill during his junior year in 1998 when his parents learned that he may never play ball again.

"We got the call at 4 o'clock in the morning from the hospital telling me my son was on life support," said Melendez's mother Pat Flores.

Melendez was in a devastating car wreck which resulted in a severe brain injury -- which reduced him to barely more than a vegetable.

Today, eight years later, he has full time care at home and cannot walk, or feed himself. There is no cure for this kind of brain damage.

Experts say that the prescription sleeping pill Ambien could if help reverse Melendez's state although the pill helps millions of Americans sleep at night, it actually helps Melendez become more alert. He can respond to his parents by either shaking his head yes or no and sometimes even speaks.

"I knew it was the medicine, the Ambien," Flores said.

Doctor Ralf Clauss has studied the effects of Ambien on just three patients -- including Melendez. He speculates that while brain injury may cause some parts of the brain to remain dormant, sometimes the drug may temporarily reverse this change

"We are seeing restoration of consciousness and restoration of function in our patients," Clauss said.

Dr Nicholas Schiff of Cornell Medical School studies brain injuries and has never seen this phenomenon and says that the finding is important.

"I'm not surprised to hear it," he said. "I think it's a piece with a lot of things that really deserve more attention and more study."

Doctors say that this side effect of Ambien is very rare -- many brain injured patients take Ambien and never see the same sort of wakening as Melendez. Still others say that it could be the brain healing itself that is causing this alertness, not the Ambien, but Flores thinks otherwise.

She received a prescription for her son in 2002 when his constant moaning prevented them both from sleeping at night. The surprise came 10 minutes after he received his first dose.

"I noticed there was no sound coming out of George. And I looked over to the next bed and said, 'Hey, George.' And he comes and says 'what?' And that was the first time he had spoken. I tugged at my husband and said. 'Look, look he is talking,'" she said.

Flores and her husband spent the rest of the night making a video tape of Melendez, who for the first time since his accident was alert, responsive and talking.

"Can you say the word no?" his father asked in the video.

"No," Melendez said.

"Your voice. I love your voice," Flores said.

"That was perfect Georgie," his father said.

Since that very first dose in 2002, pat has given Melendez Ambien three times a day every day.

"It was glorious for us to hear his voice again," Flores said. "The little changes we see -- they are monumental to us."

ABC News visited Melendez to witness the transformation induced by Ambien. Before taking the drug, he was unresponsive, stiff and uncomfortable. His last dose of the drug had been the night before.After his morning dose of Ambien, he said his name and could make the number one and the number two with his fingers.

Flores says Melendez will show effects from the drug for hours before it wears off. Doctors can't say whether he will continue to improve on Ambien, but for the time, Flores is happy to have just a little more of her son back.

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