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Seizure Preceded Griffith Joyner's Death

Autopsy: Performance drugs played no role, O.C. coroner says. Epileptic event caused suffocation.

October 23, 1998|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Olympic sprint champion Florence Griffith Joyner died after suffering an epileptic seizure, according to autopsy results, released Thursday, that her family hopes will put to rest rumors that drug use contributed to her death.

Griffith Joyner's husband, Al Joyner, expressed vindication by the Orange County Sheriff's Department report and bitterly criticized those who suggested that she took performance-enhancing drugs.

"My wife took the final, ultimate drug test," Joyner said, choking back tears, during a brief news conference following the release of the autopsy. "And it's what we always said, there's nothing there. So please, please give us time to grieve and just let my wife rest in peace."

The sheriff-coroner's office found that the only drugs in Griffith Joyner's system when she died Sept. 21 were small amounts of the over-the-counter painkiller acetaminophen and the antihistamine Benadryl, which is sometimes used as a mild sedative.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 27, 1998 Home Edition Sports Part D Page 2 Sports Desk 2 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Olympics--Florence Griffith Joyner, who died last month, was one of two women to have won four medals in track and field in the same Olympics. Fanny Blankers-Koen of Holland won the 100- and 200-meter sprints, the 80-meter hurdles and anchored the victorious 400 relay team in the 1948 Olympics in London. Griffith Joyner was identified as the only four-medal winner Friday.

Griffith Joyner's epileptic seizure lasted from minutes to less than hour, said Dr. Richard I. Fukumoto, the county's chief forensic pathologist. The seizure caused her to suffocate in her bed. She might have survived had she been able to roll over onto her back, Fukumoto said.

Griffith Joyner, 38, and 25% of the population have a congenital weakness of a blood vessel in the brain, called cavernous angioma, said Dr. Barbara Zaias, a forensic neuropathologist with the coroner's office. She said 10% to 15% of those people suffer from seizures.

In most instances, though, the condition doesn't cause problems, and many people live their lives unaware of it. Other times it may cause headaches, bleeding or seizures, Zaias said.

Fukumoto said he knew of nothing in the medical literature that showed this condition could be brought on by using performance-enhancing drugs, such as steroids.

Griffith Joyner had suffered a seizure previously, during a flight from Los Angeles to St. Louis in 1996, and she was hospitalized briefly. After her death, her brother, Weldon Pitts, said it was the result of stress. On Thursday, the Joyner family and coroner's doctors declined to take questions about the athlete's medical history.

Zaias said a cavernous angioma might show up during sophisticated imaging tests, such as an MRI or a CTI, but even then it might stay hidden.

The day she died, Griffith Joyner's husband called paramedics from their Mission Viejo home at about 6:30 a.m. and said his wife was not breathing. Joyner told investigators when he had last checked on her, at 1 a.m., she was sleeping.

Griffith Joyner died almost 10 years to the day after winning the 100-meter gold medal, the first of three she won in the 1988 Olympics.

She later won the 200 meters and was a member of the teams that won the 400-meter relay and came in second in the 1,600-meter relay. She became the first woman to win four medals in track at one Olympics.

Because of her muscular build and dominance of the sport, Griffith Joyner came under suspicion for using steroids or human growth hormones, but she never failed a drug test. The Olympic champion credited her success to diet and extensive weight lifting.

Friends and fellow athletes said the autopsy result bring closure to her sudden death at age 38.

"We now hope that this great Olympic champion, wife and mother can rest in peace, and that her millions of admirers around the world will celebrate her legacy to sports and children every day," said Bill Hybl, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, in a statement.

"It is time for the whispers and dark allegations to cease," he added.

The events that caused Griffith Joyner's death started with the cavernous angioma in the portion of the brain called the cortex, above the left eye, which developed while she was a fetus, Zaias said. The cortex is the portion of the brain associated with language, speech and cognitive processes.

The condition meant that within an oval of about an inch there were several empty spaces that filled with blood, Zaias said.

The angioma irritated brain cells, causing nerves to misfire and bringing on at least one seizure. Because she was sleeping face down, the seizure would have caused her head to turn to the right, which, combined with her getting caught in the bedding, obstructing her air passageway and caused her to suffocate.

Fukumoto said if the someone is suffering a seizure, you should try to keep their airway open and "let the person go through the seizure activities."

An expert on the disorder emphasized that it was "extraordinarily rare" for a person with a diagnosis of epilepsy to die of suffocation as a result of a seizure.

"This is a distinctly unusual complication of an epileptic seizure," said Dr. Michael Risinger, acting director of the Stanford Comprehensive Epilepsy Center. In emphasizing the rarity, he hoped to avert panic by epileptics and their loved ones that this was a common event.

Coroner's office officials said Griffith Joyner had a healthy heart. "When I started the autopsy, I wasn't expecting this," Fukumoto said.

About 2.5 million people in the United States have epilepsy, a term that covers a spectrum of neurological disorders characterized by recurring seizures.

The seizures range from so mild they are hardly detectable to "grand mal" episodes where muscles forcefully contract and the body goes rigid.

Contrary to widespread belief, epilepsy is most often diagnosed in adulthood, with 70% of the 125,000 new cases each year involving people older than 18, according to the Epilepsy Foundation of America.

The roots of the problem lie in disruptions of nerve function in the brain, and in most cases, the reason is unknown. However, in 30% of cases a tumor, viral infection or another factor is identified as the trigger.

Contributing to this report were Times medical writer Terry Monmaney and Times staff writers David Reyes and Mike Penner.

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