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 her death. Griffith Joyner died last month in her sleep at age 38.
Her husband, Al Joyner, 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 after 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 Orange County Sheriff-Coroner's office found that the only drugs in her system when she died were small amounts of the over-the-counter painkiller acetominophen and the antihistamine Benadryl, which is sometimes used as a mild sedative.
Griffith Joyner's epileptic seizure lasted from minutes to less than hour, said Dr. Richard I. Fukumoto, the county's chief forensic pathologist. Such seizures rarely lead to death, medical experts noted. In Griffith Joyner's case, the seizure apparently caused her to be suffocated by her bedding.
Griffith Joyner was one of 25% of the population to 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.
Charles Yesalis, an expert on performance-enhancing drugs at Penn State, said the autopsy would not definitively show whether Griffith Joyner ever used steroids or human growth hormone. The most long-lasting steroids leave the body within a year, he said, and Griffith Joyner retired from competition nearly a decade ago.
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 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 his wife at 1 a.m. she was sleeping.
Coroner's office officials said Griffith Joyner had a healthy heart.
Griffith Joyner died almost 10 years 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 and still holds the world record in the 100--10.49 seconds.
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 a new diet and extensive weightlifting.
Bill Hybl, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, issued a statement in support of Griffith Joyner after release of the autopsy results. "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 sport and children every day," Hybl said. "It is time for the whispers and dark allegations to cease."
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, obstructed her air passageway and caused her to suffocate.
Fukumoto said if someone is is suffering a seizure, you should try to keep their 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 recurring seizures.
The seizures range from so mild they are hardly detectable to grand mal episodes in which 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 over 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 other factor is identified as the trigger.
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.
Researchers are not certain exactly how the malformation, which can be inherited or arise during development, can induce epilepsy, he added. But the risk of seizures is increased when the vessel leaks blood, Risinger added.
Times medical writer Terry Monmaney and Times staff writers David Reyes and Mike Penner contributed to this story.