By Yen Duong

Guided by their teachers and volunteers, students with intellectual and developmental disabilities walked and wheelchaired from over a dozen buses to MedFest, a one-day event to help them take part in Special Olympics.

More than 200 Charlotte students had their vital signs recorded by volunteer nurses and played in a waiting room equipped with corn hole, yoga mats and board games while waiting to see volunteer health care providers.

For six years, volunteers from Carolinas Rehabilitation have put on MedFest in collaboration with Atrium Health, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Special Olympics. This year students from nearby public and private schools came to the Harris campus of Central Piedmont Community College on Sept. 28 for sports physicals and dental checkups.

“One of the hardest things in my job is to have to tell an athlete or a family, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t participate because we don’t have proper paperwork, we don’t have a physical,’” said Greg Morrill, director of Special Olympics in Mecklenburg County.

A teenager sits in a conference chair with a blood pressure cuff on his arm while a standing nurse records the measurements.
A teenager gets his blood pressure measured by a volunteer nurse at MedFest on Sept. 28 in Charlotte, in preparation for a physical which will qualify him to participate in Special Olympics.

To compete in Special Olympics, new athletes must turn in a record of a physical and returning athletes must have one every three years. But for many would-be participants, that can be a challenge, said Yolanda Autry, a 27-year veteran teacher of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

“Because of the type of at-risk students we have, it’s hard for them to get medical appointments, afford to pay or just have transportation to get there or take time off work,” Autry said. “This is very convenient because all they do is fill out the paperwork, we take them and it’s over. It’s done.”

Over 3,000 Special Olympics athletes live in Mecklenburg County, where MedFest kicked off for the year. Six more MedFests will occur across the state, according to the Special Olympics of North Carolina website. Past MedFest events included vision and hearing screenings, podiatry and/or physical therapy specialists.

Leveling the playing field

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics, the international nonprofit organization which sponsors athletic competitions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Six people from the Tar Heel state attended those first games. Today nearly 40,000 North Carolinians take part with local chapters in each county, said Special Olympics of North Carolina president Keith Fishburne.

Special Olympics offers free practice, coaching and competitions in 19 different organized sports for people with intellectual disabilities. Though Special Olympics remains a sports organization, over the past 20 years they’ve partnered with health care providers to help their athletes, Fishburne said.

“We began to recognize as an organization that the general health of our athletes was not that great,” Fishburne said. “We started a huge initiative across the Special Olympics movement to develop partnerships with health-related organization so we could do those simple screenings.

“We’re not medical people and we’re not health people, but we’re good at creating partnerships.”

The Healthy Athletes initiative brought screenings to state-level competitions, but not everyone attends the biannual state-level games, said Special Olympics NC health director Ellen Fahey. Therefore, MedFest brings screenings to athletes.

“Only so many athletes can go to the state-level games, and we wanted to make sure that everyone was having the opportunity to get access to these screenings,” Fahey said. “I was working with these local programs to start providing the screenings, connecting them with their local health care resources and getting the health care resources knowledgeable and comfortable working with people with intellectual disabilities.”

‘A difference on both sides’

MedFest doesn’t only benefit the athletes, Fahey said. For the 17 doctors, three medical students and 20 nurses who volunteered this year in Charlotte, MedFest offered an opportunity to interact with a population they don’t often see.

“A physician assistant came up to me and told me, ‘I didn’t volunteer at your event because I’m just not comfortable working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,’” Fahey said. “That blew my mind to actually hear in person instead of just reading the statistics about it.

“It’s making a difference on both sides, not just impacting the athletes, but the health care system too.”

Jordan Sestak, clinical director for the Charlotte event, said Carolinas Rehabilitation medical residents were exposed to populations with brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and cerebral palsy more than other specialized doctors. But they still benefit from volunteering at MedFest and the state Special Olympics competitions.

“I grew up with a lot of family, friends and cousins who have intellectual disabilities and participated in Special Olympics events when they were younger and just they absolutely loved it and enjoyed it,” Sestak said. “It was such a rewarding experience that I wanted to make sure that I was a part of that as I grew up and got older and I was actually able to help.”

For Autry, who teaches a transition class  that provides job training and life skills for her 18-to-22 year-olds with severe disabilities at Harding University High School in Charlotte. She said MedFest provides an invaluable service.

“If my biggest worry is the bill and their biggest worry is walking, I can worry about that bill later and deal with them,” Autry said. “They want to do everything that everybody else does.”

Medical students from Campbell University were on-hand to observe MedFest in Charlotte to prepare for their own MedFest, which will happen in November in Harnett County. Fahey said students from East Carolina University had been in touch to plan a similar event in Pitt County.

“What I want to see happen is the kind of MedFest we had in Charlotte replicated in Asheville, Wilmington, Elizabeth City, Boone and all over the state,” said Fishburne, president of the North Carolina branch. “When we get to the point where we see those happening, we’ll be able to say we really had an impact.”

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Yen Duong covers health care in Charlotte and the southern Piedmont for North Carolina Health News.