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Thousands of Special Olympians will visit Healthy Athlete Village at the 2018 summer games.

Special connections, part 3

Medical and health professions students have a vital role helping Special Olympics athletes

Contact: Ari Harris


Last of three parts. See part 1 and part 2.

This week, Central Michigan University is welcoming more than 5,000 athletes, coaches and friends to campus for Special Olympics Michigan's State Summer Games and celebrating Special Olympics' 50th anniversary.

For CMU students preparing for careers in medical and health professions, the summer games offer a unique opportunity to work hands-on with patients. Whether they're offering free health screenings, treating minor injuries, or simply offering encouragement and support, CMU students play a crucial role in keeping the games fun and safe for all.

Here are a few ways CMU students work with Special Olympics Michigan partner to keep athletes happy, healthy and having fun.

Healthy Athlete Village

Ann Guzdzial, chief program officer for Special Olympics Michigan, has seen many improvements in the games in the 27 years she's been involved: higher-quality facilities, more-skilled athletes and coaches, and greater participation from around the state.

While she says "every part of the games is my favorite," at the top of her list of best improvements is the Healthy Athlete Village presented in the indoor football bay in the Indoor Athletic Complex.  

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After their vision screening, many athletes will receive new custom glasses.

Understanding that individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities often have limited access to health care resources, Special Olympics partnered with sponsors and volunteers to offer screenings and information in seven areas.

Athletes can receive free vision and dental screenings, and many receive free custom glasses at the event. Onsite health promotion volunteers — many of them CMU students from the athletic training, nutrition and dietetics, and physical therapy programs — help with lifestyle and fitness advice. Audiology students even provide hearing screenings.

"This is a great opportunity for our athletes and for CMU students to get hands-on experience working with a special population," Guzdzial said.

Hands-on with patients

Taylor Hoekwater, an instructor in rehabilitation and medical sciences and the athletic training program, teaches a special class to prepare students for work at the summer games.

"We want to provide students with additional experience working with special populations," she said. Her students discuss evaluating and working with athletes with physical disabilities and how they may communicate differently with athletes who have intellectual disabilities. Her students are part of the medical teams working around campus during the games.

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CMU students assist with fitness assessments and healthy living programs.

"The immersive experience also gives students the chance to work with other health care professionals such as nurses and paramedics."

Jeremy Marra, a 2006 graduate of the athletic training program, got hooked on the games as a medical team volunteer. Now in his 16th year of service, he's serving as the medical logistics coordinator, supervising student volunteers.

"We are medically responsible for thousands of athletes, volunteers and spectators. Student medical volunteers serve alongside seasoned professionals to appropriately prevent and treat injuries and illness during the games."

While it's a huge responsibility, Marra believes the rewards far exceed the commitment.

"If you've ever felt overwhelmed or underappreciated on the health profession path, this event can bring it all home. Not only do our health professions students get to learn from a diverse, interdisciplinary medical team, they are able to care for a unique population.

"These athletes deserve our care, and in turn they teach us adaptability and patience in providing health care."

Learning outside the lecture hall

The first two years of medical school are marked by lots of studying and lectures, said first-year medical student Dalia Khader. That's part of the reason why so many of her peers were eager to get involved as volunteers with the Special Olympics.

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CMU medical students are among the volunteers assisting in the wellness areas.

Working at the games is hands-on work in partnership with local physicians, and students gain a better understanding of the unique needs of individuals with disabilities, some of whom may become future patients, Khader said.

"An important value at CMU's College of Medicine is diversity and inclusion. Our goal is to become culturally competent physicians who can provide a comfortable and caring environment for all our patients," said Megha Patel, a second-year medical student.

Many first-year students earned their CPR and first aid certifications, something not typically done until the second year of medical school, just so they could volunteer in the medical areas at the games. More than two dozen signed up for this year's events and will provide medical check-ups and assist with health screenings.

"This is such a heartwarming and humbling experience, and we wanted to be able to pass it down to future classes," Patel said. The Medical Student Council, the college's student government association, has partnered with Special Olympics Michigan to ensure that every incoming first-year class will have the opportunity to work with the athletes.


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