Mary Lou Retton Revealed the Subtle Symptoms That Led to Her Life-Threatening Pneumonia

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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It’s been nearly four months since Mary Lou Retton publicly faced a life-threatening form of pneumonia—a harrowing experience that drew extra media attention because she didn’t have insurance at the time. Now, the legendary gymnast is on the mend and ready to open up about her recent health scare.

In a Today interview with Hoda Kotb released Monday, the former Olympian, who became the first American gymnast to win the all-around gold medal in 1984, shared more details about her unexpected diagnosis. One of the most surprising parts of the experience, she said, was that she’s “never had a lung issue in my life.” “The day before [being hospitalized], we got our nails done,” Retton, who sat beside her daughter for the interview, told Kotb.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains, pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by a bacteria, virus, or fungus—and can be life-threatening in certain cases. Retton’s initial symptoms included what she thought were run-of-the-mill signs of getting older, like fatigue and shortness of breath. The next day, though, Retton found herself in a more dire situation. “I literally was lying on my bedroom floor and I said, I can’t do this… I couldn’t breathe,” she recalled. Luckily, her neighbor noticed that Retton’s car door was left open in her driveway, so she checked on her and promptly drove her to the hospital.

Retton’s health situation was such an anomaly that even doctors didn’t take it as seriously as they should’ve, she said. “I wasn’t being treated,” Retton recalled, revealing that she was initially hospitalized for only a “couple of days” and then discharged. “I kept saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’” she noted. Then, shortly after returning home, Retton’s daughter found her almost unresponsive, so they rushed to a different hospital. That’s when doctors finally realized how bad things were, as Retton’s oxygen levels kept dropping to dangerously low levels.

In tears, Retton told Kotb that after about a week, her family was told to prepare for the worst. “They were saying their goodbyes to me,” she said while crying. “[Doctors] were about to put me on life support.” Luckily, a last-ditch effort of pumping oxygen through Retton’s nose prevented her from going on a ventilator. “I am so grateful to be here. I am so blessed to be here,” she said.

To this day, Retton says doctors still aren’t sure what caused her pneumonia, since she tested negative for COVID, the flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). One thing she’s certain of, though, is that she’s a true champion—on and off the balance beam. “I’m a fighter,” Retton said. “I have no idea what the future holds for me. I don’t know if I’m going to have lasting issues with my lungs… I wish I had answers, but I would never give up. It’s not in me.”

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