Connor Deegan punched holes in the wall. He attacked a girl at school. He threw violent temper tantrums to the point of vomiting. He threatened to kill himself.
“I wish I was dead,” he repeatedly hissed to his parents.
Connor was just 10 years old.
“He was one violent temper tantrum away from being admitted to a behavioral health hospital,” says his mother, Valerie Deegan, of Woodstock.
His frustrated mother was tempted to do so, anything for a short reprieve.
“He was tearing our family apart,” says Valerie, who also has two daughters. “I know it sounds horrible, but I was wishing he wasn’t even born.”
In kindergarten, teachers noted Connor’s inability to follow directions, to listen without interrupting and lack of a positive attitude. The same observations were made by his first and second grade teachers. In third grade, his behavioral unraveling got worse.
Connor was demanding. Temperamental. Impossible to please. He bullied others. He ripped up his homework. He hated school. He hated his mother. He hated himself.
Most alarmingly, he had suicidal thoughts.
No one, especially his exhausted parents, could keep it under wraps any longer.
“Connor’s school was threatening to expel him, and his future looked bleak,” his mother says.
Was it attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? Another mental health condition? Something worse? Valerie contacted a pediatrician. She requested allergy testing. She enrolled in parent-child therapy. Out of desperation, she had a full psychological evaluation performed.
That evaluation determined that Connor was cognitively gifted but also had Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Worse yet, it labeled him. It may have been convenient for the world, but not so much for his parents.
“His school kept telling me to get him on an individual education program or they would expel him,” Valerie recalls.
Tests showed that Connor had several allergies—to dogs, cats and various types of trees—though he never showed any common symptoms.
Among the battery of tests, a sleep study was conducted at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Since birth, Connor had snored and, early on, his family thought it sounded adorable, like a baby pug at bedtime. He also breathed through his mouth, something his parents didn’t think twice about as he grew up.
Connor was diagnosed with “sleep disordered breathing,” causing his snoring, mouth breathing and teeth grinding due to airway restriction.
Help in sight
Connor was referred to Dr. Darius Loghmanee, from the pulmonary medicine department, who prescribed allergy medication to treat Connor’s nasal congestion. He also referred Connor to Dr. Kevin Boyd, a dental expert conducting a case study on similar conditions with children.
Connor’s parents wondered, “How is a dentist going to fix our son’s behavior issues?”
They started doing research, discovering that chronic allergies caused Connor’s nasal passages to be swollen. To compensate, he breathed through his mouth, causing development problems there, as well as chronic sleep deprivation problems.
“A sleepy child sometimes shows similar symptoms to a child with attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity issues,” says Loghmanee, noting that 1 to 5 percent of American children suffer from sleep apnea. “But most pediatricians don’t typically think about sleepiness issues with behavioral issues. We’re just starting to better understand this connection.”
Connor’s mouth gradually developed a higher arch in the palate. His jaw couldn’t accommodate his tongue. His enlarged tonsils and adenoids took up even more prime space. With such a constricted airway, it was like drinking through a straw that’s too thin.
All this contributed to his snoring and his lack of sleep each night. Unlike adults, who would happily take a nap during the day, chronic sleepiness with kids can become a “noxious state,” Loghmanee says.
Kids will do whatever it takes to remain awake and stay stimulated, even if it means acting disruptive, aggressive or violent, he says.
“For Connor, it was the perfect storm of circumstances,” Loghmanee says. “He didn’t have a severe case of sleep deprivation, but it was enough to interfere with his behavior.”
His tonsils and adenoids were removed and his frenulum lasered. Among other dental work, his teeth were straightened and he received a daily dose of allergy medication.
“What needed to change was the quality of sleep my son was getting at night and how he was breathing,” Valerie says. “No amount of counseling or medication was going to change my son’s behavior problems.”
An estimated 12 percent of American children are affected by airway restriction problems, many of them misdiagnosed with ADHD or other behavior syndromes, experts say.
“There are an estimated 8 million Connors out there,” his mother says. “Too many of them will live violent, angry lives if undiagnosed and untreated.”
“… My son wanted to kill himself because I was not educated enough. Neither were the psychologist, pediatrician, pediatric dentist, school psychologists and all the counselors we saw.”
Boyd calls this a new paradigm in the pediatric dental industry, changing the face of orthodontics in this country and abroad.
“Early detection is key,” says Boyd, from Dentistry for Children and Families in Chicago. “We got to Connor early enough.”
But it was not early enough for his family, who struggled to reverse Connor’s “bad kid” label at school and in society.
“This change of attitude from others played a huge factor in his turnaround,” Loghmanee says.
With his sleep restored, Connor now behaves like other tweens.
“No family needs to go through what Connor experienced,” Valerie says. “Parents need to know the negative effects that sleep disordered breathing can have on their child.”
She has launched a grassroots campaign to spread the word to other parents and more pediatricians. She also has become a member of Lurie’s Circle of Friends, creating a fundraising event called Ride of the Zombies to benefit the hospital’s sleep medicine department.
“By sharing our experience, we can provide another option for parents to explore before they feel the need to medicate or label their child,” she says. “Airway and sleep restriction must be evaluated before any behavioral disorder diagnosis or medicinal treatment.”
Loghmanee agrees, noting updated 2012 guidelines published in the Journal of Pediatrics: “We need to make a bigger deal about it, and this is something that pediatricians are becoming increasingly aware of.”
Connor, 13, is now in seventh grade. His grades last year improved, he has new friends, and he no longer wishes he was dead. He also has renewed relationships with his sisters, Kayla, 14, and Kiera, 4.
“We finally found Connor,” Valerie says.
“For so long we hid him from the world, but now we want to show him off. We also want to save all the other Connors out there as early as possible.”
Jerry Davich is a Chicago writer and dad of two.
Mom calls for changes
Valerie Deegan is advocating for the following changes to help other Connors:
Require all pediatricians to perform a sleep evaluation (a short list of questions) during every child’s check-up.
“There is no reason any child should suffer from a completely treatable and preventable disorder,” she says. “If I had been educated about the effects that snoring can have on a child, I would have been able to prevent Connor’s emotional suffering.”
Mandatory assessment of sleep and airway restriction before any behavioral disorder diagnosis or medicinal treatment is made.
Educate every parent that snoring and mouth breathing are not natural and which steps to take if they notice these symptoms in their child.
Engage all pediatric dentists to start screening for airway restriction.
“With these changes, snoring and apnea would be significantly reduced,” she says.
Wath the video “Finding Connor Deegan” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sk5qsmRyVcE.