HERMITAGE Myasthenia gravis afflicts 3 Hickory High School grads

All three have undergone surgery and are on medication to control the disease.
HERMITAGE, Pa. -- Myasthenia gravis means "grave muscle weakness," but that's only one of the symptoms that signify the onset of the disease.
Three young Hermitage residents, all Hickory High School graduates, have been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis over the past few years and didn't know what was happening to them at the time.
"I first started getting double vision," said Kisha Doutt, 20, of Stafford Street, who was diagnosed in May 1998 during her sophomore year. She soon developed more symptoms, including a drooping eyelid, general weakness and slurred speech.
Some of those symptoms were mirrored in Courtney Ivan, 19, Hofius Lane, who was not diagnosed until July 2001, a year after she graduated. She and Doutt had been close friends in high school, she said.
"I had double vision. I had slurred and sloppy speech," Ivan said, explaining her first symptoms.
Third victim: Jeff Vermeire, 20, of Anne Lane, was diagnosed in August 1999 shortly after graduation but had been exhibiting "general fatigue and weakness" for some time before that.
He was a member of the tennis and cross country teams, and said he collapsed after a district tennis meet and had to be helped off the court a year before he was actually diagnosed with myasthenia gravis.
"For a while, I thought I had mononucleosis," he said.
Mistaking myasthenia gravis for some other ailment is common, particularly because the disease generally attacks women and men beyond their teen years.
It can be debilitating and there is no known cause or cure and, although medication has helped, it has had a profound effect on the lives of Vermeire, Doutt and Ivan.
Surgery: All three have undergone surgery to have their thymus glands removed as a means of controlling the disease.
So far, only Doutt has reported positive results from the surgery and experts say it can take two to five years to realize any improvements after the surgery.
Vermeire was an engineering major at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., in the fall of 1999 when his symptoms became so severe he had to be hospitalized.
He was forced to drop out of Rose-Hulman but has since regained some of his health and enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh in January. He said he's considering a major in theater.
The disease has forced him to pay closer attention to what his body is telling him but he said he still tires easily.
"Sometimes, I find I have to take a whole day off," he said.
"There were times I couldn't even get out of bed," said Ivan, who has recovered sufficiently to hold down a job at the Shenango Valley Mall. She plans to attend either California University of Pennsylvania or West Chester University to seek a business management degree.
She was attending the Penn State Shenango campus in Sharon for a time but the disease forced her to drop out in her second semester.
Her attitude: "I'm not going to let it rule my life," she said, adding that she intends to keep doing the things she loves, such as playing tennis. She was co-captain of her high school tennis team.
People with myasthenia gravis can lead a pretty normal life with medication, she said, stressing that she has no intention of letting the disease rule her future.
Doutt, who had dreamed of being a model since she was a little girl, got to do some modeling in New York City before she began exhibiting symptoms of myasthenia gravis and had to give it up.
"I couldn't even curl my own hair," she said, adding that she's learned to take nothing for granted.
But, like Ivan, she is intent on planning her own destiny.
"I'm not going to let it stop me from doing things," she vowed.
"I'm doing a lot better, she said, although she said she still takes a number of naps each day.
She enrolled at Slippery Rock University but the disease forced her to drop out after two months and she later attended Penn State Shenango but now plans to move to Pittsburgh this spring to attend the Pittsburgh Art Institute.
With medication, things are under control, she said.

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