Headed to Malawi with the Peace Corps on Saturday, Larry Staats, 22, of Deerfield, has had to manage much more than his grades at Kent State University, where he earned a degree in fine arts in December.
Reading heavy academic sources was difficult. Drowsiness while driving haunted him. Grogginess followed him everywhere, no matter how much sleep he got.
"If I was dozing in the car, I’d phone someone because it would keep me awake," he said.
As difficult as school was, Larry said driving was what scared him into a more serious investigation of his constant sleepiness.
"I was driving through Ravenna, and probably from the Taco Bell to the Pizza Hut, I was awoken to two loud bangs because I’d drifted to the curb and popped both tires," he said .
In 2017, he went to University Hospitals’ sleep center in Streetsboro where he underwent overnight testing for sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome, which were not problems.
The next day, he said he took five scheduled naps under close observation, and those were more telling.
"With that, they can test how fast you go to sleep and enter REM sleep," he explained. "If you enter REM more than two of the five times, it’s a really good indicator you have narcolepsy."
The observations indicated he fell asleep within an average of 2 minutes of lying down for a nap. Larry was eventually diagnosed with narcolepsy, and Dr. Deborah Ewing-Wilson, the UH doctor who currently treats him, said he has a fairly typical case.
"People with narcolepsy typically just have an overwhelming need to sleep — or what we characterize as a sleep attack," she said. "You or I might fall asleep if we’re in a dark room or watching TV. They might fall asleep in conversation or while driving."
Ewing-Wilson said people with narcolepsy also may experience frequent, vivid nightmares called hypnagogic hallucinations and "sleep paralysis," a condition in which they can’t move when they initially wake up.
"It may only last for a few seconds, but it’s very scary," Ewing-Wilson said.
In addition to falling asleep at odd times and in odd places, Larry said he just felt tired all the time, a feeling many Americans can identify with.
"There’s a grogginess," he said. "When I’m sitting, I can just feel a wave of grogginess. It’s more of learning about it and seeing the signs so I catch it before it happens."
Ewing-Wilson said people need to be careful not to mistake inadequate sleep for narcolepsy. Few people get the seven to nine hours of sleep she recommends.
Although Larry takes a daily dose of modafinil, a stimulant that helps keep him awake, he said he still needs to make sure he gets enough sleep at night.
"I’m kind of getting to the point where I can manage it myself," he said. "I just have to understand what’s going on with myself. I was able to get full nights of sleep after graduating."
However, the final weeks of the semester were difficult for him.
As he was learning about narcolepsy and learning to cope with it, Larry applied to the Peace Corps in September, an application challenged by his condition.
"When I got denied by the Peace Corps, I was kind of ready to fight it," he said, adding that he asked Ewing-Wilson and another doctor who treated him to write letters to the program on his behalf. "Within a couple days, it was overridden, so that was great."
On Saturday, he will head to Philadelphia for training, and from there he will make his way to Malawi, a small country just east of Zambia and south of Tanzania in Africa, where he’ll stay for 27 months.
"I’m going to be a secondary education English teacher, so I’ll be in the classroom with students who I believe are middle school and high school age," he said. "It’s one of the poorest nations in the world. It’ll be very different."
Does he think narcolepsy will challenge him in his new job in Africa?
"As long as I’m on my medicine, as long as I get enough sleep at night, I don’t really imagine having an issue," he said.
Reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at 330-541-9440, firstname.lastname@example.org or @bobgaetjens_rpc.