Olympian Gail Devers' Struggle with Thyroid Misdiagnosis

Gail Devers' Struggle to Regain Her Health After Misdiagnosis

Olympian Gail Devers, famous thyroid patient
Olympian Gail Devers struggled with misdiagnosis of her Graves' disease. Kirby Lee / Getty Images Sport

The sometimes vague symptoms of thyroid disease are not always properly diagnosed--or treated. Some women may feel they cannot lose weight, or their hair is thinning, because of age.  Sadly, every year, undiagnosed thyroid disease robs women and men of quality of life--and health.

Thyroid disease can happen to anyone, young or old, famous or not. For five-time Olympic gold medalist Gail Devers, her journey to proper thyroid diagnosis and treatment was a nightmare.

In Devers' case, doctor after doctor failed to recognize the signs of severe Graves' disease, as the Olympic gold medal-winning athlete dropped from 125 to only 87 pounds, suffered debilitating fatigue, lost nearly all her hair, and suffered other symptoms she has described as "traumatic."

Devers, known as the ``fastest woman in the world,'' left her first Olympics in 1998, feeling weak, forgetful, and suffering a variety of other thyroid symptoms such as hair loss. Her famous ultra-long fingernails were breaking.

Finally gaining the right diagnosis and treatment, Ms. Devers testified to Congress about her years of misdiagnosis, during which her severe case of hyperthyroidism went undiscovered.

In Devers' testimony, she described how doctors dismissed her symptoms of weight loss, fatigue, rapid heart rate, and dry skin as normal for an Olympic athlete in training. After more than two years, and in such a severe state that doctors discussed amputating her leg, Devers was finally diagnosed.

She had radioactive iodine treatment to disable her thyroid, and was put on thyroid hormone replacement therapy. She went on to win gold medals in the 100-meter dash at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games.

Devers' testimony was part of a Congressional investigation into ways to combat medical mistakes that were estimated, at the time, to kill up to 98,000 hospitalized Americans a year.

That number does not include people annually injured by medical mistakes outside of hospital settings.

The Congressional inquiry was based on a report entitled "To Err is Human," prepared by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in November of 1999. The study called for mandatory report of medical errors and for Congress to create a federal Center for Patient Safety to investigate ways to prevent medical errors and establish better standards for patient safety.

The proposal was controversial. Doctors' groups objected and some lawmakers felt that a federal Center for Patient Safety duplicated the job of existing federal health agencies and departments.

Devers urges Americans to learn the early warning signs of critical conditions, including thyroid disease, so they can better communicate with doctors and demand better care.

Gail Devers has served in the past as a paid spokeswoman for a campaign called GlandCentral, sponsored by the American Medical Women's Association, and funded by Knoll Pharmaceuticals, which at the time was the manufacturer of Synthroid brand levothyroxine sodium thyroid hormone.

Despite the testimony of Ms. Devers, and the investigative work of Congress, medical mistakes continue to injure and kill devastating numbers of Americans each year.  In a 2013 report from the Journal of Patient Safety, researchers estimated the actual number of people who die each year due to medical mistake is between 200,000 and 400,000 per year.

Using a screening methodology called the Global Trigger Tool, study authors identified cases involving adverse events--which are preventable medical injuries and deaths.  An author on the original 1999 IOM report, Dr. Lucian Leape, stated that  he had confidence in the numbers proposed in the study.

To put that into perspective, these numbers suggest preventable medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease, and cancer.

Although symptoms of thyroid disease are confusing, it is important to push for the right answers to your medical concerns. Early treatment of an underactive, or overactive, thyroid helps minimize the symptoms you experience, and prevent damage to your overall health and well being.

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