Special Olympics program offers free health care aid to athletes in need

Mst Kakoli of Bangledesh takes part in a physical therapy exam at the Healthy Athletes clinic on the University of Southern California campus on Tuesday, July 28, 2015. The Healthy Athletes program also provides free podiatry, audiology and vision examinations.
Mst Kakoli of Bangledesh takes part in a physical therapy exam at the Healthy Athletes clinic on the University of Southern California campus on Tuesday, July 28, 2015. The Healthy Athletes program also provides free podiatry, audiology and vision examinations.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Mst Kakoli of Bangledesh takes part in a physical therapy exam at the Healthy Athletes clinic on the University of Southern California campus on Tuesday, July 28, 2015. The Healthy Athletes program also provides free podiatry, audiology and vision examinations.
Beryl Sue Correia, a dental services volunteer, examines an athlete at the Healthy Athletes clinic on the University of Southern California campus on Tuesday, July 28, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Mst Kakoli of Bangledesh takes part in a physical therapy exam at the Healthy Athletes clinic on the University of Southern California campus on Tuesday, July 28, 2015. The Healthy Athletes program also provides free podiatry, audiology and vision examinations.
Swimmer Bryan Seow of Singapore takes part in an eye exam at the Healthy Athletes clinic on the University of Southern California campus on Tuesday, July 28, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Mst Kakoli of Bangledesh takes part in a physical therapy exam at the Healthy Athletes clinic on the University of Southern California campus on Tuesday, July 28, 2015. The Healthy Athletes program also provides free podiatry, audiology and vision examinations.
Athletes representing Indonesia take part in physical therapy exams at the Healthy Athletes clinic on the University of Southern California campus on Tuesday, July 28, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Mst Kakoli of Bangledesh takes part in a physical therapy exam at the Healthy Athletes clinic on the University of Southern California campus on Tuesday, July 28, 2015. The Healthy Athletes program also provides free podiatry, audiology and vision examinations.
Refrain Castellenos, a medical services volunteer, leads an eye exam at the Healthy Athletes clinic on the University of Southern California campus on Tuesday, July 28, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Mst Kakoli of Bangledesh takes part in a physical therapy exam at the Healthy Athletes clinic on the University of Southern California campus on Tuesday, July 28, 2015. The Healthy Athletes program also provides free podiatry, audiology and vision examinations.
A Arti, representing India in handball, takes part in a pure tone screening in the audiology area at the Healthy Athletes clinic on the University of Southern California campus on Tuesday, July 28, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC


Listen to story

03:58
Download this story 1.0MB

The Special Olympics World Games are in full swing at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. As eager swimmers dive into the pool at the Uytengsu Aquatic Center, patriotic fans draped in international colors have nothing but words of encouragement.

But on the other side of campus, there’s a different type of marathon going on — a health marathon.

For a majority of the athletes, this experience offers a first for many of these olympians — the opportunity to receive comprehensive health care. 

"As you know our athletes are coming from 177 countries," said Janet Rodriquez, director of Healthy Athletes for the 2015 Special Olympics. "They don’t necessarily have medical care in their countries so they come to the Healthy Athletes program to get screened for their ears, their mouth, for their vision, and for their feet — their overall health and well-being."

Rodriquez estimates that more than 850 athletes have received vital medical care from Healthy Athletes, which has now become the largest global health organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities.

From 11 a.m. in the morning until 7 p.m. at night, volunteer doctors and nurses give these olympians a full physical check-up -- something that is not always available in these athletes’ countries of origin.   

Rodriquez says it’s not uncommon for them to catch medical emergencies that have gone unnoticed for years.

"We had an athlete earlier today that was just orally screened, but they discovered he needed an immediate extraction so they pull him into the dental truck and they extracted his tooth," she said. "He had never ever been seen by a dentist a day in his life and he’s in his mid-thirties."

Dr. Levi Harrison is an orthopedic surgeon based in L.A. This year, he’s serving as medical director for Healthy Athletes.  But he said physical health is only one aspect of the work they do.

"We want them to leave empowered. We want them to leave educated. We want them to leave even better than they came," Harrison said. "The goal here is have an understanding that the athletes are just like us — there's no difference. If we recognize their humanity, if we give to them, they give us so much more."

Dressed in red, white, and blue, Durica Durica stands at nearly 6 feet tall.

"I’m from Serbia and I'm an athlete competing in shot put and the 100 meter race," he said. 

On Monday, he passed the preliminary rounds and is now headed to the finals. He says the team did receive some medical evaluation before leaving home, but his teammates still took advantage of a few of the services at Healthy Athletes.

"We have exercise fitness and eye exams and we passed it all," he said.

However, that’s not the case for all of these countries.

Coach Onike Span leads the Oylmpic tennis team from St. Vincent and The Grenadines. He says the health clinic shines a light on problems they didn’t know players had.

"We do have public health service where I’m from, but most of these have to go privately. And [as a result] most of these athletes don’t really go to the doctor that much," Span said.

"It’s good that we could come here and they can get their eyes tested. They can get some dental care. Test their fitness so the coaches, when we do go back, we’ll know how to better deal with the athletes."

Rodriquez says the word is starting to get out. Earlier this week, Healthy Athletes workers were greeted by a line of nearly 500 competitors.