Olympic track and field star Gail Devers talks about living with Graves’ disease and thyroid eye disease

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Olympic gold medalist Gail Devers pictured for Horizon Therapeutics on April 12, 2022 in Atlanta. (photo by Jessica McGowan)

jessica macgowan

Gail Devers was at the peak of her college running career at UCLA when her health began to decline.

“My hands were constantly shaking, I was extremely tired and my eyes started to bother me,” the Olympic gold medalist told PEOPLE. “I lost so much weight that I looked emaciated, and I had sores on my face and my skin was peeling off.”

Despite having strange symptoms and feeling unusually weak, she made it to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. But in his hurdles and sprints, his body just didn’t work. “Something was seriously wrong,” said Devers, 55. “I got there, and the bottom fell off – I ran slower than the first time I walked the track.”

She returned from the Games and embarked on a three-year search for answers that involved countless doctor visits. The 5’3″ athlete recalls his hair falling out in clumps and his weight dropping from 125lbs to 79lbs. Friends, family and teammates would ask her if she was okay, but, she says, “I got tired of having to answer these questions – and having no answers for myself. .”

Gail Devers

Gail Devers

Courtesy of Gail Devers

His condition worsened and his self-esteem took a hit. One day she was sitting in a park and a child playing nearby asked her mother what was wrong with Devers, saying she “looked like a freak”.

Devers shivers at the memory. “I walked into my house. I looked at myself in the mirror, the skeleton of the person looking at me. And I covered my mirrors with black sheets.” Devers went through a period of depression, staying at home, not answering the door, not answering the phone.

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Then, in 1990, she met her UCLA track team doctor for the first time in a long time and noticed Devers’ visible goiter, a thyroid swelling in her neck. “It was the first time I had heard of a thyroid,” Devers said.

Within a week, a specialist diagnosed him with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. It affects about 1 in 100 Americans, and women are 5 to 8 times more likely to get it than men.

“Graves’ hyperthyroidism can transform a highly productive, extremely productive individual into a poorly functioning individual over a period of weeks to months,” says Dr. Henry Burch, MD, endocrinologist and co-chair of the American Thyroid Association.

“The disease can be confused with other disorders, so patients with suggestive symptoms should inquire about the possibility of a thyroid disorder, which can be easily confirmed or ruled out with a simple blood test,” adds he.

Devers began taking radioactive iodine therapy, which destroys the part of the thyroid that produces hormones. In 1991 she found herself training again, this time for the world championships to qualify for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where she won gold in the 100 meters – a victory she would repeat. at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, in addition to winning gold. in the 4 × 100 meter relay.

Gail Devers

Gail Devers

Popperphoto/getty

However, not all of his symptoms had improved. “I always had the bulging eyes, the redness, the tears.” At the Games, she says, “I was running the hurdles, but it was like I was looking through film – it was blurry.”

She remembers feeling helpless: “I just assumed my symptoms were caused by my Graves, and there was nothing I could do about it,” she says.

It took another 30 years before the final mystery of Devers’ health was solved. An online eye health quiz led her to suspect she had thyroid eye disease, a rare disorder that few Graves patients suffer from, but which almost always occurs in Graves’ setting. PDD presents with uncomfortable and embarrassing symptoms such as irritation, pain, tearing, swelling and, in extreme cases, loss of vision.

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“Quality of life can be significantly reduced in patients with ASD due to visual impairment, as well as altered appearance,” says Dr. Burch.

For Devers, it was a huge relief to get help for the condition, which includes eye drops and working with her doctor to determine treatment.

“I’m a sprinter,” says Devers, who lives in Atlanta with her husband Mike and daughters Karsen, 16, and Legacy, 14. “I was supposed to reach the finish line first, and now it’s taken me 30 years after learning I have Graves’ disease to find out I have PDD.”

“If you have Graves’ disease, start paying attention to your eyes,” she warns. “Don’t assume like me that it’s just part of your Graves’ disease and you have to deal with it. You don’t.”

The experience motivated her to help others.

“I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I went through,” Devers says. “I have a stick full of knowledge and I want to pass it on to help people defend their health.”

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