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Olympic Gymnast Mary Lou Retton Opens Up About Pneumonia Recovery

Gold medalist is still on oxygen, explains why she didn’t have health insurance

spinner image Mary Lou Retton performing at the Women's Gymnastics balance beam competition at the 1984 Summer Olympics on August 1, 1984
1984 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. / Getty Images

After being hospitalized for weeks with a life-threatening rare form of pneumonia, Mary Lou Retton, 55, was able to spend Christmas at home. 

The Olympic icon spent a month in a Texas hospital in the fall, according to her family. During her hospitalization, she said, she was close to death.  

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“I am blessed to be here, because there was a time when they were about to put me on life support,” Retton told NBC’s Hoda Kotb in an interview on the Today show, while sitting on her couch at home with her oldest daughter, Shayla Schrepfer.

Retton said she was supposed to meet her daughters at a football game in Dallas but was too ill to leave home. 

“I literally was laying on my bedroom floor,” she said. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I couldn't breathe.” 

Luckily, she said, a neighbor noticed a car door left open in her driveway. The neighbor went to tell Retton that it was open, found her and took her to an emergency room, where she was admitted and diagnosed with pneumonia. 

She was sent home, but the next day, Schrepfer found her nearly unresponsive and took her to another hospital. Her oxygen levels were dangerously low. Doctors told the family that Retton’s life was in grave danger.  

“They were saying their goodbyes to me,” an emotional Retton told Kotb. 

Retton explains why she was uninsured

On Oct. 10, Retton’s daughters disclosed that their mother had been in an intensive care unit for more than a week, “is not able to breathe on her own” and is “fighting for her life.” The daughters said their mother didn’t have health insurance. 

After the family set up a fundraising site to help pay Retton’s medical bills, donations poured in, reaching more than $459,000. “When COVID hit and after my divorce and all my preexisting [conditions] — I mean, I’ve had over 30 operations, orthopedic stuff — I couldn’t afford it,” Retton said. “But who would even know that this was going to happen to me?”

After several weeks in the hospital, Retton began to heal. Doctors said she was well enough to go home.

“I’m not great yet. I know it’s going to be a long road,” Retton said. “But you have no idea how blessed and how grateful I was for this holiday season.”

Retton said, “I’m all set now,” confirming she has health insurance.

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The family said the remaining money from the fundraising page will go to charity. Retton has not disclosed whether those funds are paying for health insurance or how much money might be left over.

Groundbreaking gymnast

Retton made history in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles by becoming the first American female gymnast to win an Olympic all-around title. She took home five medals that summer — more than any other athlete.

After her victory, the West Virginia native became one of the most popular gymnasts in the world and was the first in the sport to appear on a Wheaties cereal box. She retired in 1986 to become a sports commentator, as well as to act in some television shows and movies.

Pneumonia hospitalizations

Each year, about 1.4 million Americans visit the emergency room due to pneumonia and more than 400,000 people die of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, fungi or viruses, including the ones that cause the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19. 

Pneumonia can cause severe illness in people of any age, but children under 5 and older adults are the most at risk. Getting the flu and COVID vaccines can help prevent the infections that lead to pneumonia. A pneumonia vaccine is available for adults 65 and older, as well as those with certain medical conditions.

5 warning signs of pneumonia include:

1.  Productive cough

Pneumonia causes the air sacs in your lungs to fill with fluid, so it’s almost always accompanied by a cough — usually a productive one.

2.  Fever or a very low body temperature

Most people who have pneumonia have a fever and chills, but sometimes older adults with pneumonia develop a low body temperature (anything below 97 degrees Fahrenheit).

3.  Shortness of breath

Those with pneumonia may have trouble catching their breath, experience wheezing or feel like they are breathing faster than normal.

4.  Chest pain

Unlike heart attack pain, pneumonia pain is often described as sharp or stabbing and usually hurts more when you cough or take a deep breath. But regardless, any type of new or persistent chest pain warrants a trip to the emergency room.

5.  Dizziness or delirium

A change in cognition or awareness can be a sign of pneumonia in older adults. If older adults become confused or don’t seem to be alert, doctors should check for infection, experts say.

Editor's note: This story, originally published Oct. 11, 2023, has been updated.

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