Hoping to spare others the medical run-around she once endured, Kelly G. Ripken has established an education and referral program for people suffering from Graves' disease and other thyroid disorders.
Ripken, the wife of Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr., will serve as co-director of a program at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Initial funding is a $250,000 donation from the Kelly & Cal Ripken Foundation.
With this program, people can make a phone call to speak to someone who will find answers to questions about thyroid disorders. Callers can get referrals -- to a Hopkins physician or to an expert in the person's hometown. They can get paired with another thyroid-disease sufferer who can provide support.
"The main purpose is to have one place that you can call and get information and answers -- not just somebody who is just going to say, 'I can't help you out,' or 'Why don't you go talk to somebody else?' " Kelly Ripken said at a news conference yesterday.
In 1984, while dating the Oriole star, she was stricken by sleeplessness, rashes, unexplained weight loss and an unrelenting headache. Despite visits to a dozen physicians and two dozen medications, symptoms continued for 2 1/2 years.
She was tested for brain tumors, Hodgkin's disease and lupus. She received cortisone shots in her neck and had her wisdom teeth extracted. One doctor suggested that she might be suffering the stress of dating a celebrity.
Finally, a psychiatrist thought to investigate a thyroid disorder. A blood test revealed Graves' disease -- an overactive thyroid gland. With treatment, her symptoms subsided.
The thyroid, in the neck, produces hormones that circulate through the bloodstream and regulate functions of the heart, kidney, liver and brain. An underactive thyroid can cause fatigue, weakness, constipation, weight gain, depression, memory loss and a slow heart rate. An overactive thyroid can cause a rapid heart rate, trembling hands, weight loss, nervousness and bulging eyes.
"Because physicians are faced with a sea of common complaints, they often fail to pursue the diagnosis of thyroid disease as frequently as they should," said Dr. Paul Ladenson, Hopkins chief of endocrinology and co-director of the new program.
Thyroid disease can throw a few curveballs -- symptoms that don't fit the classic pattern. It is unusual for headaches to be the predominant feature of Graves' disease, as they were for Ripken. "The good news is that there are accurate tests," Ladenson said.
In April, the program will offer free blood tests to 5,000 people in metropolitan Baltimore.
Cal Ripken, who sat by his wife's side, said he had to overcome his reluctance to deal with anything medical. "I never had injuries in my own career, and never had any interest in medicine," he said. "But I found out very early on that you have to be able to understand it to deal with it."
To reach the program, call 410-614-1174 or 1-888-595-2131. The Web site address is: http: //thyroid-ripken.med.jhu.edu.
Pub Date: 2/11/98