The body of a 55-year-old Oaklyn, N.J., woman was pulled from a South Jersey lake this week. Police, who say her death has been ruled an accidental drowning, said her history as a sleepwalker came up during the investigation.
Rita Brown said it is hard for her to believe her friend Charlene Ferrero could have walked blocks from her apartment into Newton Lake Saturday night without waking up from the cold or upon entering the water.
“I’m in denial,” Brown said. “I don’t want her to be dead, I want her to come through that door again. I just think it all happened very quickly.”
Dr. Karl Doghramji, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Thomas Jefferson University, said serious injury or death while sleepwalking is rare, but possible.
“People who sleepwalk are partially asleep and partially awake at the same time. The motor part of the brain, the part that controls motor activity, is awake,” Doghramji said, which means you can walk, eat, cook, and even have sex while asleep.
“But the part that controls cognition, or the ability to perceive the environment, is partially asleep,” he said.
That means the body does not react to outside stimuli the same way it does when awake.
Dr. Wissam Chatila, a professor and sleep disorders expert at Temple University, said it would be possible to walk into a lake in the middle of winter and not wake up from the cold. Or, not notice the smell of burning when cooking.
“You turn on the stove to start cooking, for example, but if something is burning then she might not react to that,” Chatila said. People who are sleepwalking “are not aware of their surroundings.”
Police say on the night Ferrero disappeared, they responded to a call about a woman wearing pajamas who was wandering in the neighborhood.
They said they may never know the cause of the accident, but have ruled out foul play.