July is Graves Disease Awareness month, and five-time Olympian Gail Devers is doing her part to raise awareness of the disease as well as a separate but related condition called Thyroid Eye Disease.
Gail Devers is one of the greatest American sprinters ever, a track and field icon whose Olympic glory is very much alive and well. We are reminded of her track and field brilliance this time of year, with the Olympic games set to begin later this month in Tokyo.
But the journey of this five-time Olympian is far more personal and impactful now.
Devers’ battle with Graves disease is well documented, a fight that she’s more than holding her own against, some 30 years after her initial diagnosis.
“I'm a sprinter,” Devers said. “I like to get to the finish line quickly, but I didn’t with my health. I took the long way around, and I don’t want that for anyone else. I want to shorten their path to getting to the finish line and getting their life back on track.”
A big part of that involves increased understanding of the disease, especially with July being Graves Disease Awareness month.
In an exclusive interview with EBONY, Devers, who has partnered with Horizon Therapeutics, discusses the upcoming Olympic games as well as her journey with Graves disease and Thyroid Eye Disease (T.E.D.), a separate but related condition that often goes untreated.
EBONY: What is it like for you this time of year when there’s so much talk and buzz about the Olympics?
Gail Devers: It’s exciting. Since I retired, I have become a fan of my sport. I watch all the trials, from the paralympics to gymnastics to track and field. I’m truly a fan now. So the excitement, as far back as 1996 ... I’m excited that we can hopefully bring that gold medal back in the 100 meters. The last time was mine in 1996. So I’m excited, waiting for the games to begin.
For a number of athletes, this will be their first Olympic Games. You know what that is like. Knowing what you know now about that experience, what advice would you give them?
Savor the moment. Four years from now is not promised that you will be able to come back. Do all that you can. And remember, it’s just another meet at a different venue. It’s the same thing you've been doing every single day. People think, "Oh my gosh, it’s the Olympics." Yes, there are the five rings; there’s people all over the world watching and competing. But you are not doing anything different than you’ve ever done every single day when you walk out onto the track for practice. So, you have to remember that, and forget about the stage. Put your blinders on and just do it.
Your battle with Graves disease has been well documented. But can you give us a sense of what that was like for you, being in that moment?
As an athlete, you know your body. Every day, every week changes. I started losing a lot of weight. I’m pulling muscles warming up; my nails are breaking, hair falling out; sensitivity to light. I was tired all the time—tire, yet I couldn't sleep. My eyes were bulging. When I would go to sleep, my eyes didn’t close all the way. Pain in my eyes. It was the worst time for me, to be honest. I stopped looking at myself in the mirror. I could not stand the vision looking back at me, a skeleton of the person I was. It got to the point where I stopped going out, covered my mirrors. I was in a dark place ... for me and I would assume for anyone, that was the worst place to be.
With this being Graves Disease Awareness month, what do you want people to understand about the disease, particularly those in the Black community?
There are certain illnesses that you have in your own community that we don’t talk about. What I want us to understand in the Black community is there are illnesses out there; you have to take the bull by the horn and educate yourself. It may not be you. But I want everybody to know the signs and symptoms. If you’re experiencing weight loss, fatigue, migraines, insomnia, things like that, tremors, rapid heart beat, you need to get checked out. It could be Graves disease. I want people to understand ... up to 50 percent of those [with Graves Disease] may develop what I have now, which is Thyroid Eye Disease.
Can you tell us more about Thyroid Eye Disease (T.E.D.), which is something that’s even less known about than Graves disease.
If you have Graves disease already or you know somebody who has it, I need you to tell them they need to start listening to their eye health. I need you to tell them to focus on their eye health if they have the symptoms I’m talking about: the redness, the pain, the sensitivity to light. You need to know it’s related to your Graves disease, but separate. You need to get checked out by a T.E.D. specialist. We're taking the time to educate everyone this month, but this is a problem that is 24/7, 12-months a year, 365 days. You can learn about it and educate others anytime. I ran the relay, when I ran. That’s passing the baton. So what we’re trying to do right now is pass the baton of knowledge—so that we’re passing it through the community and let people know that, this could affect you. This could affect your loved one, or friend, or someone that you know.
For additional information on Graves disease as well as Thyroid Eye Disease, check out Devers’ testimonial here.