This World Narcolepsy Day, second-year Texas Tech student Fernanda Salas celebrates the strides she has made to overcome her health challenges.
Fernanda Salas serves up cups of caffeinated beverages with a smile.
A second-year student at Texas Tech University studying kinesiology, Salas' position as a 7 Brew Coffee barista has allowed her to become so close with her co-workers that she considers them her second family.
Salas always looks forward to clocking into the energetic atmosphere with them and interacting with customers because she's never standing around.
“I'm never bored,” Salas said. “If I was, I would probably fall asleep around 1 or 2 p.m.”
Salas knows this to be true because ever since her third year at Midlothian Heritage High School in 2020-21, her body has grown accustomed to the nap schedule she had to develop after some concerning health issues.
“I had just turned 16 the end of June and I started having symptoms where my muscles were shutting down every single time I laughed, smiled, giggled or had any happy emotions,” she recalled. “I was having these episodes maybe 30 times a day.”
Salas would stay conscious during these episodes that many times caused her to collapse and experience paralysis, sometimes for 30 seconds, other times worse, for up to five minutes.
But there were other worrisome symptoms Salas was experiencing, too. She could not force herself to stay awake in class, on car rides or even during conversations. Then came the hallucinations and sleep paralysis.
The combined result was a period of anxiousness and depression.
“I remember after my first sleep paralysis, I woke up the next morning and I told my mom that something was wrong, and she needed to take me to the ER,” Salas said. “When I walked into the ER, I felt like I sounded crazy.”
At first, Salas' bones and muscles were examined by specialists to determine if her knees were the cause of her frequent collapses. It was not until a visit to a neurologist seven months later she discovered the true source of the problem, following an unusual question.
“The neurologist asked me, ‘Do you feel like someone touches you while you're sleeping because your muscles are tingling?'” Salas said. “And I was like, ‘Yes.'” The neurologist took a moment and left the room after Salas answered. When she returned, Salas was diagnosed with narcolepsy with cataplexy, also known as narcolepsy type 1.
“Honestly, I cried,” Salas said. “One thing that made me cry was she said there's not a lot of research on sleep, which means there's no cure – meaning I have to take treatments for the rest of my life.”
That was a hard pill for Salas to swallow, along with her parents Fernando and Erika.
“We knew it was not going to be easy for her going from a healthy and active lifestyle to taking medication every day just to be well,” Erika said. “This illness was going to be a challenge in which she would have to fight to get ahead.”
It was the beginning of a difficult new chapter for Salas, one that began with doctors trying to understand her sleep patterns.
To do so, Salas had to stay at a medical facility overnight with cables connected all over her body and head. She was instructed to sleep overnight and then for five additional 20-minute naps with two-hour gaps between each.
“During those two hours, you were not allowed to sleep,” Salas remembered, “and if you did, the nurse would come in and make you sit in a chair or walk around the hospital. It was really hard.”
In addition, Salas had to wear a watch for two weeks to track further sleep data. She was shocked when she learned what the combined information revealed.
“The neurologist told me I was dreaming or going into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep within five minutes,” Salas said. “For a normal person, it takes 1 hour and 30 minutes to go into REM.”
The findings also showed Salas was waking up 45 times on average every single night.
“I thought I was waking up maybe 25 times a night, so I was like, ‘Wow, that's crazy,'” Salas said. “The neurologist said, ‘Sometimes you wake up and you don't realize it because you're so tired. Sometimes you'll wake up for just a few seconds and then you'll go right back to sleep.'”
The way it was explained to Salas is that her brain is flipped opposite of most: she sleeps the best during daytime and struggles to rest at nighttime. That's when Salas decided she would create her nap schedule, where every day at 2 p.m. she would take a nap.
“I can never sleep for an hour straight,” she explained. “That's just not possible for me. So, if I nap for 30 minutes, it feels like I slept for an hour. If I sleep anywhere near an hour, it feels like I slept for three to five hours.”
That helped, but not as much as the medication prescribed to Salas that she could try a month after her diagnosis. She describes her first dosage as the best day of her life.
“I was able to laugh again,” she said. “It was so weird to me because my friends would try to make me laugh and I would still restrict myself because I would get scared. And then I would remember I could laugh.”
It wasn't completely easy for her body to adjust to the medication, but with time, Salas began to enjoy being a teenager again. She could fully experience football games as the trainer, when beforehand, the lights and cheering combined with high emotions greatly affected her.
Salas also could devote her time not only to her health concerns, but her future.
“In high school, I loved everything about rehab and modalities and being around injured athletes,” she said. “I'd see broken bones and blood all the time and I would help with wounds, but none of that scared me. I realized I really enjoyed it.”
Salas' training experience combined with her hospitalizations confirmed she wanted to go into medicine – specifically pediatrics. As she looked for a way to combine the two, she decided to pursue a pre-physical therapy track through the Department of Kinesiology & Sport Management at Texas Tech's College of Arts & Sciences.
“I want to do critical rehab,” she said. “One day, I want to have my own practice for kids.”
Taking On Texas Tech
There was just one problem: Lubbock was five hours away from Waxahachie, and Salas had not experienced much independence yet.
“I was really worried, and I feel like my doctor was more so than me,” she said. “My parents made a rule where I was never allowed to be anywhere by myself, from the grocery store to home. I always had to rely on people.”
But Salas felt she was ready for a change.
“I wanted to do things on my own,” she said. “I wanted to learn how to do everything.”
With faith in herself, Salas began her first year at Texas Tech during the fall semester of 2022.
She found a student mentor, joined the Hispanic Student Society and formed a friend group.
“It was actually a really good semester,” Salas recalled. “I handled everything. I could go out with my friends, I went to all my classes, I was awake all day and I could study for hours. I could watch movies and I was always talking with my friends.”
Her second semester threw Salas more of a learning curve when the medication that helps her stay awake went on national backorder, and her backup medication proved less effective.
Unfortunately, that was around the same time she started her position at 7 Brew.
“I got very busy and struggled a lot,” Salas said. “It was hard for me to show up to class and I couldn't stay awake during lectures.”
Salas eventually decided to meet with Student Disability Services (SDS) about ways to improve her college experience. The online meetings with SDS were convenient and comfortable for Salas as they worked to enhance her learning through the provision of programs, services and reasonable in-class accommodations based on her documented needs.
“That was really nice because I could openly talk with them about what I needed,” she said. “They helped a lot with figuring out what accommodations would help me, like longer testing periods.”
Salas takes initiatives like this because she remembers all too well what it was like to live life with restraints. With backing from SDS, her professors, friends and through her nap schedule, she has slowly begun to balance her college life again.
Salas' parents, who once believed her diagnosis would set many limitations in her life, are proud of how she has excelled.
“She has proven to be strong and brave, even being far away from her family without someone close to support her,” Erika said. “We hope she continues to move forward with her goals and dreams, knowing she will always have the support of our family.”
Salas has big plans to shadow physical therapists, work in hospitals, join more clubs and volunteer – a drive she takes pride in because she's out to debunk the misconception that narcoleptics are lazy.
“I feel like we get that a lot,” she said. “But I like to work because it keeps me accountable and makes me feel productive. So, I feel like we can do anything – just like someone who doesn't have sleeping disorder.”