Ariel has always been an extraordinary child. The oldest of four siblings, she worked hard in school, and was active and healthy for most of her childhood. So when the 11-year-old stumbled and fell while walking across the street to her grandparents' house, her mom, Erika, thought maybe her daughter was just going through a clumsy phase as she entered her pre-teen years.
But over time, the stumbles and falls became more frequent, and Ariel began gaining an abnormal amount of weight. She would also lose muscle control of her head and neck at times, requiring use of a wheelchair to get around at school and at home. Doctors, however, couldn't initially pinpoint a cause.
A sleep study reveals a surprising diagnosis
Ariel was admitted to Children's Medical Center Dallas for additional testing. Over the next year, she and her family worked with experts in the Children's Health℠ Neurology department to rule out a number of potential conditions. Then, a sleep study determined Ariel had narcolepsy with cataplexy, a chronic neurological condition that impacts the brain's ability to regulate sleep-and-wake cycles and is associated with brief and sudden loss of muscle control. Additionally, due to the weight gain caused by her sleep-related metabolism issues, Ariel had developed sleep apnea, which also caused her to wake up countless times at night.
Ariel's family says the situation was enough to make them feel helpless.
"By then, Ariel had become a shell of her former self," says Erika. "She was having difficulty in school, and we didn't really know what was going on with her for so long that I felt like she was just slipping through my fingers."
Taking steps to regain Ariel's childhood
It was then that Ariel and her family were introduced to Michelle Caraballo, M.D., a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist in the Sleep Disorders Program at Children's Health. Dr. Caraballo was determined to help Ariel regain her childhood.
"I am passionate about helping kids with narcolepsy because they often have symptoms long before they get a proper evaluation – and they are missing out on what should be some of the most fun years of their lives," says Dr. Caraballo. "Establishing the diagnosis of narcolepsy helps reassure them that their symptoms are not their fault, and once we start them on appropriate treatment, it's like they come alive again. I get so much joy from seeing their personalities come out when they are able to be more awake and enjoy life again."
Ariel began taking medications that helped her sleep at night and helped her stay awake during the day, so her body could re-adjust to a normal sleep cycle. Almost immediately, her mom noticed a difference.
"It was like she came back to us," says Erika.
Ariel began losing weight as her metabolism began functioning normally again. Soon, she regained her mobility and committed herself to catching up on her studies. She worked so hard, in fact, that she was accepted into a specialized high school program that enables her to earn her high school diploma and an RN at the same time – a dream inspired by the compassionate and relentless care she received as a patient at Children's Health.
"Ariel's doctors and nurses have worked so closely with her through each challenge associated with her condition, ensuring she's healthy and in a good place," says Erika. "And now, they're helping her to succeed in school, too, by adjusting her treatment plan when needs so that she can achieve her dream to become a nurse and help others."
At 16 years old, Ariel is thriving and hopeful for what the future brings. She recognizes that her life may look differently than her peers', but is grateful for the opportunity to meet each challenge head on and show her friends and family just what she's capable of thanks to their support.
The largest program in North Texas accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the Children's Health Sleep Disorders Center treats all forms of pediatric and adolescent sleep disorders. Learn more about our sleep program and services.