Extremely rare condition means this woman is temporarily paralysed every time she hears a loud noise

By Richard van Rensburg
01 May 2015

Once, the pastry chef collapsed on a freezer. Another time, she was on a railway line.

Most people will wince or jump with shock when they hear a sudden noise, whether it’s a door slamming, a siren or a hooter.

But a loud bang – or any sudden noise – has far more serious consequences for a 28-year-old pastry chef from Melbourne, Australia. Soyla Echeverria collapses on the spot when she hears a noise – and that can happen up to 25 times a day . . .

She suffers from a rare condition known as cataplexy, in which any sudden noises or emotions such as fear or distress – or even a laughing fit – can result in loss of muscle control and temporary paralysis. In Soyla’s case these symptoms can persist for up to five hours after she’s collapsed.

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And because it can happen to her anywhere at any time, it can be deadly dangerous. Once, for instance, she actually collapsed on a railway line when a police siren suddenly started wailing nearby.

“I remember the police car coming past. There was a terrible noise then I fell onto the tracks and couldn’t move,” she says. “Fortunately the police saw it happen and I was taken to hospital but the paralysis lasted for four hours. I didn’t know what was happening to me and didn’t have a clue how to control it.”

On another occasion, she was trapped in a large freezer after she’d heard a plate fall. You can see why she’s now constantly afraid of what may happen next. “I could collapse the middle of the road and be hit by a car. Anything could happen . . .”

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Soyla was 16 when she started to notice something was wrong because loud sounds such as a car hooting or a glass breaking would make her collapse. But she was only diagnosed with cataplexy three years later, and before then was hurt by the reaction of family and friends. Some wondered if she wasn’t just seeking attention and suggested she go for counselling. “I felt ridiculous and wondered myself why I kept falling over – was I just clumsy?”

She was given the correct diagnosis after she’d taken part in a sleep research programme. Cataplexy is incurable, but medication can give her some degree of control over it. These days she typically experiences about 10 such episodes a day instead of the 25 she experienced previously.

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But when going to a new place Soyla will still check for soft places to land if she does fall over. She also usually asks a family member or friend who understands her condition to accompany her when she goes somewhere.

The consternation her condition sometimes causes makes her more embarrassed than anything else. “People get the fright of their lives, become panicky and phone for an ambulance. They think it’s a heart attack. I just want to lead a full life. The medication makes things a lot better, but it’s still a big challenge.”

What is cataplexy?

According to the NHS, cataplexy involves sudden temporary muscle weakness or loss of muscle control. Symptoms include:

  • A head that tilts
  • A mouth that falls open
  • Collapsing legs
  • Indistinct speech
  • Double vision or problems focusing

Cataplexy attacks can be triggered by emotions such as shock, anger or excitement.

Most narcolepsy sufferers also experience cataplexy, but it doesn’t occur as regularly.

Sources: dailymail.co.uk, nhs.uk, thesun.co.uk, ninds.nih.gov, websta.me

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