Gail Devers' cautionary tale Errors: At 21, the track star developed thyroid disease. But doctors failed to diagnose it, even as her weight dropped to 89 pounds.

October 11, 1998|By Megan Kennedy | Megan Kennedy,SUN STAFF

Gail Devers, three-time Olympic gold medalist and "the Fastest Woman in the World," has a story she wants everyone to know.

The year she turned 21, she had just set two American track and field records. But later that year, she became barely able to walk across the room without being winded.

She noticed the pigmentation in her skin was fading in spots; then, she says, "My hair started to fall out in clumps, my nails became brittle and layers of my skin were just peeling off. At 21, that's not what you want to look at in the mirror every day."

Doctors said she was training too hard, or was too stressed.

Her eyes started to bulge, and a goiter ballooned on her neck. She felt so hideous that she covered all her mirrors and bought black shades. "I didn't want to see myself like that - I certainly didn't want anyone else to see me!"

As her weight dropped from 118 to 89 pounds, rumors of anorexia and drug abuse haunted her.

"There were times when I would have liked to crawl into a hole and wait the whole thing out," Gail remembers, "but something wouldn't let me. As an athlete, I felt I knew my body better than my doctors, and I knew something was wrong."

She continued to switch doctors, and finally, three years after her symptoms began, she was diagnosed with Graves' disease, a form of thyroid disease. At the time, she had no idea what it was, but since then, since her recovery, she has worked to educate people about thyroid disease, teaming up with the American Medical Women's Association to launch "Your Thyroid: Gland Central," a traveling information/ screening campaign.

"Thyroid disease could have cost me my dreams if I had let it go undetected," says Devers.

The goals are twofold: to educate the public about thyroid conditions, since half of the 13 million Americans with thyroid problems aren't aware of it; and to send a wake-up call to the medical professions about thyroid symptoms, since they are often mis-diagnosed.

"Three years of my life were taken away from me that could have been saved by a simple thyroid screening test," Devers says.

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that wraps around the front of the windpipe just below the Adam's apple. Its primary function is to produce hormones that regulate metabolism and organ function.

The most common thyroid disorder is hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, occurring when the thyroid fails to produce enough hormone. Hypothyroidism affects about 11 million Americans, primarily women and the elderly. Unfortunately, its symptoms are easily confused with other conditions. Fatigue, forgetfulness and weight gain are often simply attributed to aging, menopause or stress.

However, even mild hypothyroidism can be detected by a sensitive TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) test. Treatment is simple and painless: Take a synthetic hormone tablet.

Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland becomes overactive and produces too much thyroid hormone. Affecting about 2 million Americans (primarily women), symptoms - insomnia, heat intolerance and weight loss - are again easily misconstrued. The most common form of this disorder is Graves' disease - Devers' illness.

Today Devers is so attuned to her body that she can tell when her medication dosage needs to be altered. "As soon as I start to feel sluggish, I have my thyroid checked. Usually, I'm right on."

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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