Special Olympics Michigan: Practicing with a purpose, doctors offer free medical services for athletes
Having worked with Special Olympics Michigan as an athlete physician for 15 years, Dr. Phil Irion has helped give routine medical checkups to those who might need it the most.
"Getting to help people who for whatever reason can't or don't get help is not something every doctor gets to do," Irion said. "It's definitely the best thing I've done in optometry during my time."
Like many Americans across the country, many athletes competing in the Special Olympics Michigan Summer Games sometimes have little to no health insurance.
To compensate for the lack of care, Special Olympics International implemented the Healthy Athletes Program, which has helped provide medical screenings and various other forms of medical care for registered participants in the year-round games.
Special Olympics Michigan creates an “athlete village” for its athletes to receive services provided by volunteer health professionals. Housed inside the Indoor Athletic Complex’s Turf Bay, the services are rendered at no cost to the athletes and their families.
Some of the services athletes can receive include check-ups in oral hygiene, vision loss and occupational therapy. In addition, Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Michigan – the primary sponsor of the program – provides opportunities for athletes to engage in healthy physical activities, like dribbling a soccer ball or push up contests.
Ann Guzdzial, chief program director at Special Olympics Michigan, said the healthy athletes program is unique compared to other programs or services the company offers in terms of its scope.
“This program helps so many people,” she said. “Not only are our athletes able to get medical assistance they would not be getting otherwise, but these health professionals are getting training doing their craft, as well. It is a huge volunteer effort.”
In 2012, Special Olympics Michigan conducted 561 oral screenings as part of the program. Doctors in the program were able to identify and diagnose a number of gingivitis cases among the athletes; it was reported that 45.7 percent of the athletes screened had symptoms of the gum disease.
The same year, 49.5 percent of athletes screened were diagnosed as “obese” after participating in the FUNfitness portion of the three-day program.
In 2013, a total of 2,937 athletes were screened for various medical issues.
For Dr. James Seals of Alma, catching illnesses or ailments that would have otherwise gone undiagnosed is why medical professionals continue the work that they do. Doing that for the athletes – free of charge – is a rewarding bonus.
“We (the health professionals) get as much or more out of it than (the athletes) do,” Seals said. “To be able to help someone get something done (that) they might not be able to get done, you just know you are doing a good thing.”
For Irion, fulfilling his Hippocratic oath is only a small part of why he volunteers. Instead, he does it for the lasting impact he’s able to make on the athletes.
One of those athletes, a young girl he outfitted with prescription underwater goggles, even won one of her swimming events because of his volunteerism.
“She came up to me with a beaming smile saying ‘Dr. Phil, Dr. Phil!’” Irion recalled. “She had medals around her neck, and I thought she was going to tell me all about how she had won them. No. She had found me to tell me she had seen the bottom of the pool for the first time.”
Areas of assistance
Special Olympics Michigan offers seven sub-programs, all designed to promote a healthy lifestyle and engaging community involvement and awareness of various illnesses. They include:
Opening Eyes: Vision screening, refractive testing, glasses fabrication, and sunglasses and protective eye wear.
Special Smiles: Dental screenings, education about proper brushing and flossing and the importance of diet to oral hygiene, mouth guards for contact sports, and referrals to community providers for necessary dental care.
FUNfitness: Surveys general exercise habits, assesses flexibility, functional strength and balance and aerobic fitness, provides education about home exercises to improve performance, and facilitates community referrals as needed.
Healthy Hearing: Screenings to test hearing acuity, custom swim earplugs, minor hearing aid repairs, consultations on hearing aids and noisy environments and recommendations for medical or audiological evaluations.
Fit Feet- Evaluations of the skin, nails, bones and joints of the feet, examinations of the function of the feet and gait, and examinations of athletes’ socks and shoes.
Health Promotion: offering health information and advice in the areas of nutrition, sun safety, bone density, tobacco cessation, and physical fitness. Health Promotion is designed to convey and reinforce key concepts on healthy living, healthy lifestyle choices and other health issues.
MedFest: The MedFest program recruits volunteer physicians to provide the required physical examinations for people who wish to register in Special Olympics.