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The newspaper advertisement couldn’t have been more promising. Reading his daily copy of the Miami Herald, twenty-two year old Victor Durbo knew that he was the ideal participant for the study. He needed money for graduate school and saw this as a golden opportunity. As part of an ongoing project to revise sleep schedules for the company’s employees, The Miami Holistic Psychology Center called for an experiment investigating how long a human being could stay awake using stimulants. Victor could almost feel the award of one hundred thousand dollars in his hand, which would be given if the participant broke the world record for sleeplessness. With his current medical condition, Victor believed there was no way he could fail. As a person who suffered from insomnia as well as a coffee addiction, his wakefulness often seemed interminable. His education from Yale would also help him succeed; having acquired a bachelor’s degree in biology, Victor thoroughly understood the human body’s sleep system and how to overcome its limitations.
His motivation lay not only in the monetary gain but also in the opportunity to become famous. He was convinced that he could, by using stimulants, stay awake longer than Randy Gardner did. In 1964, Gardner went without sleep for eleven consecutive days using no stimulants. Now in August of 2011, Victor aspired to break Gardner’s record.
Bill Charles, the sleep researcher mentioned in the advertisement, held a Ph.D. in Psychology and had over twenty years of sleep study experience. His curiosity about the science of sleep could never be put to rest. Victor realized that Charles’ eager inquisitiveness would incline him to accept the first willing and able participant. At that moment Victor dropped his cup of morning coffee; it shattered to pieces, but he didn’t care. He was drawn out of his usual routine and grabbed the phone. “Hello, Dr. Charles speaking, how may I help you?” asked Charles. Upon hearing Victor’s excited response he answered, “Alright, you can start the study tomorrow if you’re ready.”
After the first night of the study Victor began to feel the weight of his endeavor; the onset of his initial fatigue came as a surprise to him. A couple days later he hallucinated—during lunchtime he lay down on one of the long tables, believing it was a bed.
On the fifth day, because of his weakening immune system, Victor became nauseous. As Charles walked by the men's bathroom he heard unpleasant outcries. Immediately he rushed to the office of Ross Johnson, the psychiatrist who had been monitoring Victor’s health. “Victor is puking! What kind of pills do you have?”
After scrambling through the cabinets, Johnson pulled out a small cardboard container. “Give him two of these. It’s Zofran, one of the newest anti-nausea drugs. I’ll go get him a cup of coffee.”
When Charles knocked on the stall, Victor staggered out, greeting him with bloodshot eyes and a pale face. Victor hastily grabbed the pills and sprinted over to the water fountain, then followed Charles to Johnson’s office, where he collapsed on the couch. “How in the world did that Gardner guy make it through this kind of experience?” he inquired absentmindedly.
“Although he didn’t have caffeine, he stayed awake using natural stimulants,” replied Charles. “He took cold showers, played pinball, and went on runs. But with your current state of health you’d best take it easy for a while.”
However, after a few minutes Victor began to experience effects of the pills and caffeine. “I don’t feel sick anymore, and the coffee has perked me up.”
Charles and Johnson exchanged looks of uncertainty. “If so, then maybe just a walk,” said Johnson. “You might be interested in our arcade games. We recently installed them for the purpose of comparing patients’ scores in sleepless and rested states. We’re not going to record your scores unless you’re willing to do a follow-up once you’ve recovered from the experiment.”
“No thanks,” replied Victor. “After day twelve I might as well play them in my sleep.”
By the eighth day Victor’s lack of sleep took its toll in the form of aggression. His speech became harsh and his demeanor hostile. After helping himself to a drink of water he caught sight of Charles and Johnson down the hallway chatting. Rushing toward them, he bellowed, “Hold up! I have something very important to talk about.” Panting, he continued, “You, Johnson, told me that the scientific community needs to know about the effects of sleep deprivation. Tell me now, why is this matter so important?”
Johnson stood petrified, unsure of how to respond to this madman. He cleared his throat and gingerly responded, “I think you need to come to my room so we can talk about it calmly. Once you lie down, catch your breath, and have a little snack, you’ll be all better.”
Victor’s face surged with redness, and he took a step closer to Johnson, who covered his ears in anticipation. Charles stepped in just in time, holding Victor back. “Please calm down—we know what you’ve been through, but you must try to stay in control.”
Disregarding the researcher, Victor forced his arms away before striking him on the chest. Charles fell backward against a wall, rubbing his head with a disgruntled expression. Finally realizing the monster he had turned into, Victor’s face softened as tears streamed from his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” he sobbed. “I know what’s happened to me, but if you’ll just tell me why knowledge of sleeplessness is so important, I’ll be okay.”
The psychiatrist felt great compassion for his patient; after helping Charles to his feet he gently patted Victor on the back, saying simply, “This is why.”
Victor’s girlfriend from college, the charming Paula Lowring, had heard about the experiment from Victor and sought permission to give him a quick visit. Paula was in the process of becoming a human and animal rights activist and was stunned by what she saw of her boyfriend; the bright and enthusiastic colleague had transformed into a sleep-deprived slug. On the evening of the eleventh day, the patient and the two professionals awaited her grand arrival in the psychology center’s lobby.
When Paula came in, she warmly greeted her friend: “It’s good to see you again, Victor. I hear you’re almost at the end of the study. Being so close to breaking the world record must be exciting.”
But Victor made no response, nor even a nonverbal recognition of Paula’s presence. She glanced nervously toward the other two men for an explanation.
“He can’t answer you,” Johnson told her.
“What’s wrong...is he on drugs or something?” Paula asked.
“This is an effect of his sleep loss,” Charles replied. “We should go upstairs now to measure his blood pressure. Last time it was extremely low.”
Victor, seeing that that the people around him were moving, instinctively decided that he should follow them. But the moment he stood up he felt dizzy, and his vision quickly became foggy. Paula, upon seeing Victor fall backward, reached a hand out and grabbed him by his shirt. Johnson borrowed a wheelchair from a nearby room for Victor to sit down in while they rode the elevator.
In an upstairs room Johnson wheeled in a bed while Charles hooked up a blood pressure monitor. Paula helped them by preparing a cup of coffee for Victor in the kitchen. Victor hesitated at the bed, eyeing it as a trap to be avoided, lest he fall asleep so close before the twelfth day. Once he got the okay from his supervisors he leaned over and crawled into the bed, but kept his eyes wide open, struggling to not let the lead in them lead to his failure.
Analyzing the results of Victor’s blood test, Charles let out a gasp of terror. In all his years as a sleep researcher, he had never felt so responsible for a patient’s life. “Victor’s blood pressure is unbelievably low,” he warned in a low voice.
Johnson reciprocated the researcher’s mortification. “Certainly we don’t want to him to die, but it’s not even close to midnight. Surely there must be some way to keep him alive and awake for just a little bit longer. What about the money we promised to help him acquire?”
Paula came back from the kitchen, catching words of the conversation as she entered the room. Shocked at their discussion, she staggered backward, dropping the coffee in front of her feet; the mug shattered, and the hot liquid splattered all over the floor. “You’d better not kill him or I’ll sue this company,” she threatened.
As the evening turned into night and the night wore on, a heated triangle of argument ensued, with each of Victor’s associates taking different perspectives on the dilemma. Charles firmly believed that as long as they found a way to keep his blood pressure up, there was no need to fear. Paula took just the opposite view, insisting that it was vain and immoral to expose her dearest friend to the risk of death. Meanwhile, Johnson hovered between the two opinions, often acting as a mediator.
“We can let him sleep now, but that means we can’t give him the large sum of money,” Charles reasoned. “However, we will give him a smaller amount for participating.”
Paula, however, stood her ground firmly. “This poor guy has been deprived of sleep for a very long time. From his behavior in this dangerous study, you’ve gained a whole bunch of knowledge that you don’t need to know but only want so you can tinker with the sleep schedules of your employees. For goodness sake, if he’s so close to death you ought to give him the entire money incentive, if not more!”
Charles stared silently at the floor for a long time, his expression a concoction of contemplation and sadness. Paula clenched her fingers, letting the weight of her meaningful words sink into Charles’ moral conscience.
Johnson cast a sympathetic glance over at Victor, who sat on the bed with his eyelids drooping. Touched and inspired by Paula’s conviction, he concluded, “I agree, it’s about time for him to get some sleep.”
“Keep in mind our reputation,” Charles added. By darting in front of the bed he blocked his co-worker’s path. “It’s only ten o’clock, so we can’t give him the money just yet. We have to remain an honest and just organization.”
“Who cares about your reputation?” Paula shouted. “Honestly! It’s going to be infinitely worse when you lose a court case against me.” She rushed toward her friend and, with all her strength, shoved the bickering co-workers across the room, where they stumbled over each other and began to fight, both verbally and physically. Paula leaned closely to Victor to speak to him, but before she said anything, her attention diverted to the screen displaying his heart rate. A surge of rage coursed through her body, but with Charles and Johnson out of the way for the moment, she seized her only opportunity.
Speaking clearly but discreetly, she whispered in her friend’s ear, “Victor, you can sleep now. Go…to…sleep.” At first Victor appeared puzzled and unsure, but after seeing Paula’s concerned face he carefully closed his eyes and kept them closed for the first time in eleven days.
The following morning, Paula sprang out of the bed she borrowed and barged into Victor’s room, screaming, “Please tell me he hasn’t died!” She saw Victor lying on the bed, covered in blankets. At his bedside, Johnson was reclining in a rocking chair, displaying an air of serenity opposing Paula’s uneasiness. Casting her eyes several times around the room, she noticed that Charles was missing.
Johnson knew what she was thinking and said, “Mr. Charles insisted on keeping Victor awake in spite of risking his patient’s death, so the police are downstairs with him right now. It’s a shame, for he was so close to retirement.”
“What about Victor?” Paula insisted.
“Your friend has had a full night’s rest and can go home now. You’d best be getting out of here as soon as possible; you really wouldn’t want to get caught up in all the legal craziness.”
Paula tapped Victor’s forehead and said to him, “It’s time to wake up; we have to leave quickly.”
Groaning, Victor rolled over and tossed the blankets on the floor. For a short time he sat motionless on the edge of his bed, but upon having a vague recollection of his prior experience, a massive smile grew on his suddenly animated face. “Wow, everything’s back to normal! Gosh, whatever happened for so long was certainly worse than a nightmare. I can’t believe I know who I am now.”
Johnson and Paula mirrored his elation. The psychiatrist explained, “Mr. Charles is no longer managing this study, so I’ve kindly taken over. Because of the undeserved horror you’ve been through, I’ve decided to double your award. Keep this check safe,” Johnson said with a wink.
“I give you my utmost gratitude,” Victor stated, folding the check and putting it in his pocket. “But I’ve got to admit, the money doesn’t matter so much to me anymore. I’m mostly relieved to be out of that sleepless trance. That was some dangerous business; I wouldn’t recommend trying it.”
Acknowledging what he said but nevertheless changing the subject, Paula explained the crisis that occurred the previous night, and Victor understood the urgency of the current situation. He followed Paula to the elevator and descended to the lobby, where they raced past a discontented Charles handcuffed by two police officers. Out in the parking lot, Victor spoke to Paula as he climbed into the passenger seat of her car. “I realize now that health is more important than wealth. Even though the money will enable me to attend graduate school, it just doesn’t matter that much to me. I’m more thankful that you saved my life last night, so I’d like to offer you half of the money I’ve received.”
As Paula backed the car out of the parking space, she laughed, “I didn’t want you to die.” When they were out of the parking lot she continued, “Anyway, I’m a bit short on money for school, like you were, so I’d gladly accept your offer.”
She chatted with Victor for the whole half-hour drive back to his apartment. Dense traffic evolved from many busy Miamians, but Victor and Paula could have cared less, for they were incurably delighted over his recovery. A wave of comfort swept over him as his apartment came into view. He gave Paula a kiss of gratitude before getting out of her car. Inside, Victor lay down on the couch and turned on the television to a program on investment banking. “Health is better than wealth,” he whispered to himself, and fell asleep.