Why Gail Devers Is on a Mission to Educate About Graves’ Disease and Thyroid Eye Disease – Everyday Health

Posted: July 20, 2021 at 1:52 am

Gail Devers is best known as an American track-and-field star who won a gold medal in the 1992 Summer Olympics and two more in 1996. Competing in the 100 meters, 100 meter hurdles, and 100 meter relay, Devers wowed the crowds with her speed, strength, and agility, not to mention her signature long, colorful fingernails.

But her first Olympics, in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, didnt go so well. In fact, it almost didnt happen, even though just months earlier, Devers had broken the American record in the 100 meter hurdles with a time of 12.61.

Soon after setting that record, Devers began feeling tired and had trouble training. Every time I stepped on the track, she says, every race that I ran, every practice, every time I warmed up was just taking more and more out of me.

Devers managed to qualify for the U.S. Olympic track-and-field team in the hurdles, but not for the 100 meter race, as she had hoped, and she was eliminated in the semifinals.

Things just got worse from there: Her hair starting falling out, her fingernails became brittle, she lost weight, she developed sores on her skin, she started having trouble sleeping, she had headaches and tremors, and she started having memory problems. On top of that, her eyes were bulging and irritated.

To say these symptoms were upsetting would be an understatement. I actually covered my mirrors, because I couldn't stand looking at that person. That image was not me, says Devers.

But even while she and those around her could clearly see that something was very wrong, the doctors she consulted had no answers.

It wasnt until Devers visited her old team physician at the University of California in Los Angeles, where she attended college, that anyone mentioned the word thyroid or suggested she get a thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test.

Two days later she had a doctors appointment, but given how many doctors had already told her nothing was wrong, Devers was nervous.

This time was different: The doctor looked at me and he said, I can tell you're a walking thyroid disorder.

And not surprisingly, The tears just started flowing. I was like, Oh, my gosh. After two and a half years, somebody finally, finally, finally, finally saw what was going on!

Devers was diagnosed with Graves disease, an autoimmune disease thats the most common cause of hyperthyroidism.

In Graves disease, the immune system produces an antibody that stimulates the thyroid gland to produce more thyroid hormone than the body needs.

When this happens, the thyroid gland enlarges an enlarged thyroid gland is called a goiter and makes excessive amounts of thyroid hormone, leading to the symptoms of hyperthyroidism.

RELATED: Treatments for Hyperthyroidism: Medications, Surgery, and Other Therapies

Once Devers started treatment for Graves disease, she was able to start training and competing again, and in some respects, the rest is a gold-medal studded history of Olympic wins and World Championships.

But something still wasnt right.

Devers still had eye pain and cloudy vision, and she was constantly needing to use eye drops. The blurriness was so bad that when she was racing she couldnt even see the hurdles.

How did she make it through an event? I know its eight steps from the blocks to the first hurdle, three steps in between, five steps off the last hurdle to the finish line, Devers recounts.

It took Devers 30 years to find out she had a second condition in addition to Graves disease: Graves ophthalmology, also known as thyroid eye disease.

Thyroid eye disease is caused by inflammation in the tissues surrounding the eyes.

The disease typically occurs along with Graves disease, although it can occur on its own.

Symptoms of thyroid eye disease can include redness, a feeling of grittiness in the eyes or constant eye watering, sensitivity to light, swelling or puffiness, bulging eyes, difficulty closing the eyes fully, double vision, and vision loss.

Several forms of treatment can help to relieve symptoms and treat the inflammation in the eyes.

Generally, treatment of thyroid eye disease includes:

On a Mission to Educate

Now that Devers knows whats going on with her health, she wants to make sure it doesnt take other people with Graves disease as long as it took her to find out about thyroid eye disease.

I feel like I've suffered for everyone in the world, she says. No one should have to go through what I went through. And the way to alleviate that suffering is education.

As the onetime relay runner says, You pass the baton from one person to the other. So what we can do as a community is to pass that baton of knowledge and education.

Devers is a strong believer in writing things down symptoms, questions, concerns and bringing those notes to doctor appointments so you can have a conversation and help your doctor help you. If you don't tell them everything, how can they make a proper diagnosis? she asks.

Deverss running goals helped her push through the challenges that Graves disease and thyroid eye disease put in her path. As she says, I'm a very goal oriented person.

Now that she's 53, Deverss goals have changed, but shes still up for a challenge. Right before the COVID-19 pandemic, somebody suggested she train for a half-marathon to coincide with the Olympic marathon trials in Atlanta, where she lives.

Her first response was, You do know I'm a sprinter. Distance for me is anything over 105 meters. But she trained for it and ran 13.1 miles in 1 hour and 53 minutes.

When shes not running, Devers can be found bicycling, dancing, skating, walking, or volunteering at her kids school. I love to stay fit, she says, and I think my life is about service.

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Why Gail Devers Is on a Mission to Educate About Graves' Disease and Thyroid Eye Disease - Everyday Health

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