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Olympian Gail Devers' Thyroid Saga

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Updated December 03, 2003

by Mary Shomon
January 2000 -- On Wednesday, January 26, 2000, five-time Olympic gold medalist and thyroid patient Gail Devers testified to Congress about her own years of misdiagnosis, during which a severe case of hyperthyroidism went undiscovered.

Devers' testimony was part of a Congressional investigation into ways to combat medical mistakes that are estimated to kill up to 98,000 hospitalized Americans a year. An unknown additional number of people are harmed or killed by mistakes outside of hospitals each year as well. The Congressional inquiry is based on a report that was released by the Institute of Medicine in November of 1999. The study called for mandatory reporting 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 is controversial. Doctors' groups fear that mandatory reporting will fuel the current medical malpractice and litigation onslaught. Some lawmakers feel that a federal Center for Patient Safety simply duplicates the job of current federal health agencies and departments.

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.

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 is now urging 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 is a paid spokeswoman for the GlandCentral Campaign, sponsored by the American Medical Women's Association, and funded by Knoll Pharmaceuticals, manufacturer of Synthroid brand levothyroxine sodium thyroid hormone. Synthroid is the top-selling thyroid hormone on the market, and the number two drug sold in the U.S. Synthroid was recently the subject of a proposed class action settlement in a lawsuit filed by patients taking the drug. The lawsuit alleges that patients were overcharged during the 1990s, paying as much as two to three times for Synthroid than the cost of competitive and equivalent drugs.

Click here for more information on the Synthroid settlement and class action lawsuit history.

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