UF expert: Ambien, which Meyer took, will really knock you out

Urban Meyer had taken an Ambien sleeping pill the night his wife called 911.

Published: Friday, January 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 10:44 p.m.

It is one of the most chilling moments of the 911 tape released Wednesday in which paramedics were called to the home of Florida football coach Urban Meyer on Dec. 6.

"Urban, Urban, talk to me please," Meyer's wife, Shelley, is heard saying.

It was the night of the SEC Championship Game, where Meyer had seen his team soundly thrashed by Alabama. After returning from Atlanta, Meyer took the sleeping pill Ambien. He apparently awoke sometime later with chest pain, tried to get out of bed, then collapsed unresponsive onto the floor.

Nothing about the scenario surprises Paul Doering, a distinguished service professor of pharmacy at the University of Florida. Doering is co-director of the statewide Drug Information and Pharmacy Resource Center.

"There is no question about it, Ambien is kind of a weird customer," Doering said Thursday.

Doering points to the first widely publicized example of such weirdness, when in 2006 Rep. Patrick Kennedy drove into some road barriers one night in Washington without realizing what he'd done ... or that he'd even been behind the wheel. Kennedy had taken an Ambien and "sleep drove" into history.

In other reported cases, people have made phone calls or sent e-mails they don't remember, have ordered items from shopping channels they don't recall, have done laundry, cooked, cleaned the house, moved furniture and found all sorts of debris in their kitchens from late-night snacks they don't remember.

On March 14, 2007, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning regarding the risks associated with Ambien and similar drugs, saying they can cause "complex sleep-related behaviors which may include sleep-driving, making phone calls, and preparing and eating food (while asleep)." When this happens, the FDA advised that the person has "no memory of the event."

Doering said after he heard about Tiger Woods' 2:30 a.m. accident at the end of his driveway, he bet his wife and son that Woods had taken an Ambien.

And after the emotional end to the SEC Championship Game, Doering wasn't surprised that Meyer turned to the sleep aid.

"Sometimes amnesia can be a good thing," he said.

Ambien is available only by prescription. Most of the time, Doering said, you take the medicine, go to sleep and when you wake up, you're on your way. Most of the problems occur when you have interruptions to your sleep.

"Don't use it unless you have a full eight hours to devote to sleep," he said. "None of the sleeping medications, despite what their manufacturers would like you to believe, give you restful or natural sleep. They basically put you down, and when the drug wears off, you wake up."

If you're in deep sleep and get jolted out of bed, even without a sleep aid, it can take some time to shake the cobwebs out of your mind.

Under the influence of the Ambien still in your system, however, you will be functioning in a twilight zone, somewhere between sleep and wakefulness.

Without having any details of Urban Meyer's case, Doering noted, "if he had chest pains to the extent that it woke him up after taking an Ambien, the hospital is probably exactly where he needed to be."

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