What to know about the condition that left Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton ‘fighting for her life’

Gold-winning gymnast has been in the hospital for more than a week fighting extreme symptoms of pneumonia

Maggie O'Neill
Thursday 12 October 2023 05:27 BST
Oprah Winfrey details 'very serious' battle with pneumonia on The Ellen DeGeneres Show
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Former gymnast Mary Lou Retton is “fighting for her life” in an intensive care unit (ICU) due to a rare form of pneumonia, according to reports.

Retton, 55, is an Olympic gold-winning gymnast who became the first American to win an individual all-around gold medal at the Summer Olympics of 1984.

But she’s recently become extremely ill, according to an update her daughter, McKenna Kelley, shared on social media.

“My amazing mom, Mary Lou, has a very rare form of pneumonia and is fighting for her life,” Kelley wrote. “She is not able to breathe on her own. She’s been in the ICU for over a week now. Out of respect for her and her privacy, I will not disclose all details.” Kelly went on to say that her mother is not insured.

Pneumonia is a very common illness: The infection causes more than 50,000 deaths and a million hospitalisations each year, per the American Lung Association (ALA).

Pneumonia can cause infection in one or both lungs, which can lead to fluid build-up and inflammation. People can reduce their risk of developing pneumonia by getting their annual influenza vaccine since the flu can cause pneumonia. (Those who are at risk can also get the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine.)

The flu isn’t the only potential cause of pneumonia; there are more than 30 known causes of the infection, per the ALA, that include viruses, bacteria, and fungi. When a person is diagnosed with pneumonia it’s helpful to know what caused the infection, since that can guide treatment for the illness.

Pneumonia can become very dangerous if left untreated, so it’s important to seek help as soon as possible if you think you may have it.

Mary Lou Retton is the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the all-around gymnastic competition (Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

Warning signs include fever; sweating; shaking chills; rapid, shallow breathing; shortness of breath; a cough that may produce yellow, greenish, or bloody mucus; loss of appetite; fatigue; low energy; stabbing or sharp chest pain that escalates when you cough or breathe deeply; vomiting or nausea, particularly in small children; and confusion, which may be particularly prevalent among older people with the illness.

The most common form of the illness is bacterial pneumonia; it is often more serious when compared to other types of pneumonia. Bacterial pneumonia can strike suddenly or develop over time and can cause debilitating symptoms such as fever as high as 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

Viral pneumonia usually develops over several days, and the early symptoms are similar to those caused by flu. The symptoms of viral pneumonia usually worsen within two days.

FILE- Mary Lou Retton reacts to applause after her performance at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles on Aug. 3, 1984. (1984 AP)

Washing your hands, getting enough rest, regularly working out, and eating a healthy diet can help you avoid viruses, or other respiratory illness causes, that could turn into pneumonia, per the ALA.

Though pneumonia is very common, and many people make a full recovery from the illness, it can be deadly: The condition can be especially dangerous for young children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.

The infection can cause serious complications such as sepsis, lung abscess, respiratory failure, and more.

If you think you have pneumonia and you seek medical help, it may be helpful to speak with your doctor about any recent travel, what you do for work, whether you’ve had any contact with animals, your medical history, and whether you’ve been exposed to other sick people, per the ALA.

Kelley asked for prayer for her mother’s recovery, as well as donations to help cover her medical expenses, which can be made on Spotfund here. “ANYTHING, absolutely anything, would be so helpful for my family and my mom,” she wrote.

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