Sleeping Beauty falls into a deep slumber. Rip van Winkle awakens after twenty years to find life dramatically changed. What if they were more than tales inspired by colorful imaginations? What if sleep could be dangerous ¬ even deadly?
From 1916 through the 1920s, people around the world faced that question as a pandemic of sleeping sickness affected as many as 5 million people. My grandmother was one of them. She had a fever, sore throat, and then she fell asleep. Her sleep lasted for 180 days with a slow recovery. Never could I have imagined that she was one of the luckier ones ¬ but she was. Thousands of others died while still in that deep sleep. Or worse, thousands more awoke to find themselves horribly damaged by the sleeping sickness, also known as encephalitis lethargica ¬ literally, the swelling in the brain that makes you sleepy.
They awoke to find themselves physically crippled by Parkinsonism, actually imprisoned within their own bodies. Or they awoke to damaged minds, depression, suicide, even violent insanity. Many survivors were condemned to a life in mental institutions.
My grandmother felt the doctors search for her pulse, heard them declare her dead three different times, and listened to her parents weep and plan her burial. She could not even tell them they were wrong. For my grandmother and other Sleeping Beauties and Rip van Winkles like her, their story of sleep was never a fairytale, but a nightmare from which they never truly awakened.
Molly Caldwell Crosby holds an MFA in nonfiction and science writing from Johns Hopkins University and previously worked for National Geographic magazine. She is the author of The American Plague, which received great critical acclaim. Her writing has appeared in Newsweek, Health, and USA Today. Read more about sleeping sickness, a disease that still exists today, in Molly’s ASLEEP: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries.