Phyllis George and Polycythemia Rubra Vera

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phyllis georgePhyllis George was named “Miss Texas” at age 21 in 1970, quickly followed by winning “Miss America.” At age 25, She became famous as the most prominent woman is sports broadcasting, co-hosting the National Football League’s weekly pregame show with Brent Musburger, Irv Cross and Jimmy the Greek. At age 35, she was diagnosed with a blood cancer called polycythemia rubra vera, and 35 years later, on May 14, 2020, she died from that disease at age 70.

Early Years and TV Career
She was born in 1949 in Denton, Texas and planned to become a classical pianist, but her beauty exceeded her piano dexterity by so much that she quickly learned what she would go further in another direction. She enrolled in North Texas State University but was never graduated because she was crowned “Miss Texas” in 1970 which included a scholarship to Texas Christian University, but never was graduated from there either because she won the “Miss America” title and had to go on tour.

At age 25, she became a co-host of “The New Candid Camera” with Allen Funt, and soon afterwards was hired by CBS Sports to co-host “The NFL Today.” This was an incredible innovation because no woman previously had been promoted nationally as an expert in sports. She had to work with three men who were among the most knowledgeable sports authorities anywhere, and compared to them, she knew almost nothing. CBS Sports also had her announce at the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes and she showed the same lack of knowledge about horse racing. The CBS management replaced her for two seasons with Jayne Kennedy, another former beauty queen, and then inexplicably rehired George for four more seasons. The next year, she married John Y. Brown Jr., who had built the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain and was elected governor of Kentucky in 1979, so she was first lady of Kentucky from age 30 to 34.

At age 36, she replaced Diane Sawyer as an anchor on “The CBS Morning News” with Bill Kurtis. This time her lack of familiarity with history and current events shone through and she resigned eight months later and was replaced by Maria Shriver. However, she was a fighter and an innovator. She went on to host a talk show on the Nashville Network, start two successful businesses selling chicken meals and beauty products, and write five books about dieting, her life, and Kentucky crafts. She was a collector of traditional and folk arts. She married twice and both marriages ended in divorce. Her first marriage was to Hollywood producer Robert Evans, and she had two children with her second husband, Governor John Y. Brown.

Polycythemia Rubra Vera
At age 35, she was diagnosed with polycythemia rubra vera, and she died from it 35 years later. This is a cancer in which your bone marrow makes too many red blood cells, and also sometimes too many white blood cells and platelets. Most of the side effects are caused by having too many red blood cells, so the real danger is forming clots in your body. If red blood cells can be prevented from rising too high, the person usually does not develop clots and can live for many years and enjoy a relatively normal life.

Symptoms and Diagnosis: Early in the disease, a person has no symptoms at all, but having too many red blood cells can cause:
• itching, particularly when you take a shower or bath,
• burning pain in the hands or feet,
• a reddish or bluish skin color,
• gouty joint pain,
• belching and burning in the stomach from an increased susceptibility to Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that causes stomach ulcers and stomach cancers,
• headaches,
• lack of concentration,
• extreme tiredness,
• sweating,
• blurred vision,
• dizziness,
• bleeding,
• clotting, or
• bone pain

A person with this condition often has an enlarged spleen or liver, the red blood cell, white blood cell and platelet counts are usually very high and the sedimentation rate is very low, and the erythropoietin level that stimulated red cell production is very low.

Treatment: If you are diagnosed with polycythemia rubra vera, your doctor will try to prevent clotting by keeping your hematocrit below 42. The safest way to do that is just to draw blood repeatedly as needed. Doctors also prescribe aspirin to help prevent clotting. Chemotherapy and other drugs may be used if blood has to be drawn too frequently.

With proper treatment, the majority of patients live a long life. A serious problem can occur if the patient develops bone marrow scarring, severe anemia or clots that can cause heart attacks, strokes, lung clots or intestinal gangrene

Questions for Your Doctor
If your blood tests show that you have a hematocrit above 55 for men or 46 for women, or a hemoglobin above 17 for men or 15.5 for women, you may need other tests to rule out polycythemia rubra vera, particularly if your liver or spleen is enlarged. If you have this condition and are treated properly, you can usually live a long and relatively normal life.

Phyllis Ann George
June 25, 1949 – May 14, 2020