Olympic sprint champion Florence Griffith Joyner died after suffering an epileptic seizure, according to autopsy results released Thursday, and her family and friends say they hope the findings will put to rest rumors that drug use contributed to his death. Griffith Joyner died in her sleep last month at the age of 38.
Her husband, Al Joyner, bitterly criticized those who suggested she was taking performance-enhancing drugs.
“My wife underwent the final and final drug test,” Joyner said, fighting back tears during a brief news conference after the autopsy was released. “And that’s what we always said: there’s nothing there. so please please give us time to grieve and let my wife rest in peace.”
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office of the Coroner found that the only drugs in his system when he died were small amounts of the over-the-counter pain reliever acetaminophen and the antihistamine benadryl, which is sometimes used as a mild sedative.
griffith joyner’s seizure lasted from minutes to less than an hour, said dr. richard i. fukumoto, the county chief forensic pathologist. those seizures rarely lead to death, medical experts noted. In Griffith Joyner’s case, the seizure apparently suffocated her on the bedding.
griffith joyner was one of 25% of the population who had a congenital weakness of a blood vessel in the brain, called a cavernous angioma, said dr. barbara zaias, forensic neuropathologist at the coroner’s office. she said that between 10% and 15% of those people have seizures.
In most cases, however, the condition causes no problems and many people live their lives without knowing it. other times it can cause headaches, bleeding or seizures, Zaias said.
fukumoto said he knew of nothing in the medical literature to show that this condition could be caused by the use of performance-enhancing drugs, such as steroids.
Charles Yesalis, a performance-enhancing drug expert at Penn State, said the autopsy would not definitively show whether Griffith Joyner ever used steroids or human growth hormone. Longer-acting steroids leave the body within a year, she said, and Griffith Joyner retired from competition nearly a decade ago.
Griffith Joyner had previously suffered a seizure during a flight from Los Angeles to St. louis in 1996, and she was briefly hospitalized. after her death, her brother said it was the result of stress. On Thursday, the Joyner family and medical examiners declined to answer questions about the athlete’s medical history.
zaias said a cavernous angioma could show up during sophisticated imaging tests, such as an MRI or CT scan, but even then it could remain hidden.
On the day she died, Griffith Joyner’s husband called the paramedics at their home in Mission Viejo around 6:30 a.m. m. and said his wife was not breathing. Joyner told investigators the last time he checked on his wife was at 1 a.m. m., she was sleeping.
Coroner’s Office officials said Griffith Joyner had a healthy heart.
Griffith Joyner died nearly 10 years after winning the 100m gold medal, the first of three he won at the 1988 Olympics.
He later won the 200m and was a member of the teams that won the 400m relay and came in second in the 1600m relay. She became the first woman to win four track medals at an Olympiad and still holds the world record in the 100-10.49 seconds.
Because of his muscular build and proficiency in the sport, Griffith Joyner came under suspicion for using steroids or human growth hormones, but never failed a drug test. The Olympic champion attributed her success to a new diet and extensive weight lifting.
bill hybl, president of the united states olympic committee, issued a statement in support of griffith joyner after the publication of the autopsy results. “We now hope that this great Olympic champion, wife and mother can rest in peace, and that her millions of fans around the world celebrate her legacy in sport and children every day,” hybl said. “It’s time for the whispers and dark accusations to stop.”
The events that led to Griffith Joyner’s death began with the cavernous angioma in the portion of the brain called the cortex, above the left eye, that developed when 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 a roughly one-inch oval there were several empty spaces that filled with blood, Zaias said.
The angioma irritated brain cells, causing nerves to fail, leading to at least one seizure. because she was sleeping on her stomach, the seizure would have caused her head to turn to the right, which, combined with her being trapped in the bedding, obstructed her airway and caused her to suffocate.
fukumoto said that if someone is having a seizure, they should try to keep the airway open and “let the person go through the seizure activity.”
About 2.5 million people in the United States have epilepsy, a term that covers a spectrum of neurological disorders characterized by recurrent seizures.
Seizures range from so mild that they are barely detected to grand mal episodes in which the muscles contract forcefully and the body goes rigid.
Contrary to popular belief, epilepsy is most often diagnosed in adulthood, with 70% of the 125,000 new cases each year involving people over the age of 18, according to the American Epilepsy Foundation.
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 other factor is identified as the trigger.
one expert on the disorder emphasized that it was “extraordinarily rare” for a person with a diagnosis of epilepsy to die from asphyxiation as a result of a seizure.
“This is a clearly unusual complication of an epileptic seizure,” said dr. michael riser, interim director of the stanford comprehensive epilepsy center.
Researchers aren’t sure how the malformation, which can be inherited or arise during development, can induce epilepsy, he added. But the risk of seizures increases when the vessel leaks blood, Riser added.
Times medical writer Terry Monmaney and Times staff writers David Reyes and Mike Penner contributed to this story.