"Sjögren's Keep Me on the Sidelines? No Way!"

TV sportscaster Jeannine Edwards shares how she took charge of the autoimmune disorder behind her mysterious symptoms—and why she'll never ignore her body's red flags again.

Gina Roberts-Grey
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Photograph by Scott Lewis

We caught up with ESPN reporter and studio anchor Jeannine Edwards just as she was wrapping up a busy season. But then again, every season is a whirlwind when you work for the "go to" source for sports news and there's always an event or breaking story to cover. Jeannine, 48, had barely caught her breath after reporting on the NBA draft for ESPN's SportsCenter when she was off to interview Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps just days before his recording-breaking wins.

And after that? Well, then it was time for preseason NFL football coverage, followed by her weekly gig as a sideline reporter for college football.

Hard to believe that 12 years ago, this broadcasting dynamo was almost sidelined by two seemingly benign symptoms: unrelenting dry eyes alternating with excessive tearing. She had landed her plum job as an ESPN sportscaster five years before and now vision problems were threatening her livelihood, making it challenging to work outdoors in bad weather and wear the heavy eye makeup necessary for TV reporting. Plus, it was getting harder to spend hours reviewing stats and background material.

Around the same time, Jeannine was also experiencing fatigue and swollen joints but had no reason to suspect they were connected to her eye problems. Initially, she tried to shrug off her symptoms, but then her eyes became so dry and painful that she went to both her eye doctor and general practitioner. "I went back and forth to doctors' offices but no one could find out what was going on. I finally had a procedure to flush my tear ducts because they suspected my horrible dry eyes were the result of a blocked tear duct," recalls Jeannine.

And that dry, gritty feeling in her eyes wasn't the only problem: "Ironically, even though they were so dry, my eyes were also tearing a lot, which turned out to be reflex tearing." Essentially, her tear ducts went into overdrive to make up for the lack of natural oils that normally lubricate the eyes. "All that tearing and dryness left them feeling raw, like the nerves on the surface of my eyes were exposed," she says.

Eventually, Jeannine was referred to an eye specialist and a rheumatologist for evaluation. After various tests, she was finally diagnosed with Sjögren's syndrome, an inflammatory disease in which the immune system attacks the moisture-producing glands that make tears and saliva. "I was shocked when the doctor told me," she remembers. "Not only was it hard to pronounce, I had never even heard of it!"

In fact, Sjögren's (pronounced SHOW-grins) only recently caught the public's attention in summer 2011, when the condition forced tennis star Venus Williams to withdraw from the U.S. Open. Although the classic signs of Sjögren's are severe dryness of the eyes and mouth, Venus cited two other symptoms, joint pain and fatigue, as her reasons for leaving the competition. The disorder usually strikes women over 40.

March 2013