Last year, doctors nearly amputated champion's feet

AN AMERICAN'S 100-METER MIRACLE

August 02, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Eighteen months ago, her feet were nearly amputated. Yesterday, those same feet carried Gail Devers to the Olympic gold medal in the race that ordained her the fastest woman on earth.

The American medical community isn't going to enjoy hearing the story of Devers. For two years, doctors misdiagnosed her life-threatening thyroid problem, and Devers said it was "a miracle" she recovered to win the women's Olympic 100 meters.

Devers, 25, endured breathing difficulties, migraine headaches and temporary loss of vision before learning she was suffering from Graves disease in September 1990. She said the doctor who finally made the correct diagnosis told her the condition was "two weeks away from being cancerous."

Yet that was only the start of her saga. Devers began radiation treatment on Sept. 12, 1990, and among the side effects were foot blisters that -- after another misdiagnosis -- nearly led to the amputation of both her feet in February 1991.

Devers ran a personal best time of 10.82 seconds last night in a race that is not even her specialty. Devers is the American record holder in the women's 100-meter hurdles. She's also the first U.S. woman to make the Olympic team in both events.

"A lot of times in athletics and in life you feel walls closing in and you can't get out," Devers said. "Use me as an example. If you believe in yourself, if you have faith in yourself, you can do anything. The last three years have been definitely a miracle."

Devers graphically recalled every detail in her post-race news conference, from the bulging eyes that resulted from her inflamed thyroid to the excessive bleeding caused by her radiation treatment -- bleeding that caused her to have three to four menstrual cycles per month.

First lady Barbara Bush also suffers from Graves disease, a condition that disrupts the metabolism and can be controlled only by medication. Devers first became ill shortly after setting her first American record in the hurdles in June 1988.

Doctors initially said she was suffering from bronchial asthma, informed her the condition was not serious and prescribed medication.

But when Devers finished eighth in the 100-meter hurdles semifinals in the 1988 Olympics, she sensed a deeper problem.

She became sick every time coach Bob Kersee tried to increase her training, and eventually Kersee set up a stationary bike on the track where his other athletes trained in Southern California simply to keep Devers active.

A year and a half later, Devers still did not know what was wrong. Finally, in the summer of 1990, a friend who is a doctor noticed her bulging eyes and told Devers to get her thyroid checked. Devers had been wearing sunglasses, assuming she had an eye infection.

The friend's advice led to the confirmation of Graves disease but was not the end of her troubles.

Besides the bleeding, the radiation treatment resulted in hair and memory loss, and it caused the 5-foot-2 1/4 Devers' weight to increase from 95 to 139 pounds (she is now listed at 119).

Worst were the blisters. A podiatrist initially diagnosed them as a severe case of athlete's foot. Again, Devers was told her condition was not serious. Again, she was prescribed medication. And again, theresults were nearly catastrophic.

Devers said her feet increased from a women's Size 7 women's to a men's Size 12. The doctor who attributed her problem to the radiation treatment told her she came within two days of having her feet amputated.

Her knees would start peeling, for the radiation treatment also made her skin sensitive. But Devers said she refused to take medication that might have blocked the side effects, fearing she would test positive for drugs and suffer an automatic two-year suspension.

With new treatment, her condition stabilized, and Devers

resumed training. In September 1991, she finished second in the hurdles at the World Track and Field Championships in Tokyo. She was first in the hurdles and second to Gwen Torrence in the 100 at the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials.

Yesterday, she got off to an explosive start and led the entire race. Jamaica's Juliet Cuthbert finished second, the Unified Team's Irina Privalova third and Torrence fourth. Devers ran 0.13 seconds faster than her previous best.

For Gail Devers, today will be like any other. She will take a synthetic thyroid pill, a pill necessary because of the radiation that dissolved her thyroid but not her will.

"Sitting here now, I can think back to last year when I couldn't walk," she said. "Now, to be able to run and win the gold medal, I can't explain how happy I feel."

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