ATSU goes all in for special needs

Helping the underserved is a distinguishing characteristic of the ATSU community. For years, individuals across the University, at every level, have dedicated their time and energy to helping those who need it most.

Among those most in need are the intellectually and developmentally disabled – a group often overlooked, particularly in the realm of healthcare. At ATSU, though, the University puts intellectual and developmental disabilities front and center. Whether on a personal basis or as part of an organized group, ATSU’s students, faculty, and staff are letting their altruistic nature shine as they help improve the lives of those with special needs.

Special needs

Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy are just a few of the many types of intellectual and developmental disabilities. A common misconception about individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities is they have access to quality healthcare. In fact, families often struggle to get regular, quality care for their children with special needs. Even when these children become adults, they still struggle to obtain proper healthcare services. Furthermore, these adults generally have more difficulty obtaining adequate and affordable health insurance coverage.

Putting its mission into action, the University has ramped up efforts to provide healthcare services for individuals with special needs. Through events like Special Olympics Healthy Athletes® and Day for Special Smiles, ATSU volunteers help provide these individuals with the care they need. At the same time, students gain the experience necessary to help care for a unique and vulnerable patient population.

Special Olympics

The University has a long list of faculty, staff, and students who volunteer individually with Special Olympics, but on a sunny Arizona Friday, ATSU made a unified effort to reach those with intellectual disabilities. Commemorating 9/11 through Patriot Day, a national day of service, ATSU teamed up with Special Olympics Arizona to host the first stand-alone Healthy Athletes® event ever held at a health sciences university.

Healthy Athletes®, a free health screening program offered through Special Olympics, provides health examinations, educates athletes on healthy lifestyle choices, and identifies problems that may need additional follow-up care. Healthy Athletes® has seven examination areas: Fit Feet (podiatry), FUNfitness (physical therapy), Health Promotion (better health and well-being), Healthy Hearing (audiology), MedFest (sports physical exam), Special Olympics-Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes (vision), and Special Smiles (dentistry).

Bruce Clark, a Special Olympics Arizona staff member and athlete, leads the Special Olympics mantra, "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

Bruce Clark leads the Special Olympics mantra, “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Each athlete who participates in Special Olympics must have medical clearance before he or she can compete. Through ATSU’s event, nearly 200 Special Olympic athletes received free sports physicals on the Mesa, Ariz., campus. Athletes from around the state made the trek, including one athlete who took a four-hour bus trip one way just so he could compete in the upcoming state events.

“He was the last athlete of the day, and then he had to turn around and take the same route home,” says Jim Farris, PT, PhD, professor and chair, physical therapy, ASHS. “That was an awesome picture of an athlete’s dedication.”

Nearly 400 faculty, staff, students, and community members attended the event. Fittingly, the “All In” themed event included all disciplines from ATSU’s residential programs, creating a true interprofessional experience. Under faculty supervision, students from the areas of athletic training, audiology, dentistry, physical therapy, physician assistant studies, occupational therapy, and osteopathic medicine provided pre-participation physicals for athletes. Stations included medical history, height and weight, blood pressure evaluation, musculoskeletal and orthopedic testing, abdominal examination, cardio respiratory testing, abdominal evaluation, dental screening, and hearing examination.

“The number of volunteers for the event was overwhelming and truly amazing,” says Amy Gibson, AT, ’16, president of ATSU’s Athletic Training Student Association. “When we collaborate, we can do anything.”

Mesa Fire/Medical Honor Guard Pipes and Drums lead a solemn march in front of 400 students, faculty, staff, and community members.

Mesa Fire/Medical Honor Guard Pipes and Drums lead a solemn march in front of students, faculty, staff, and community members.

ASHS’ Gerry Keenan, MMS, PA-C, associate professor, physician assistant studies, and Dr. Farris organized and co-directed the Healthy Athletes® event. Both Keenan and Dr. Farris have been involved with Special Olympics for several years, and they believed hosting an all-inclusive service event was a great way to recognize and honor community service personnel and first responders who protect and ensure the public’s safety.

“The participation of the Gilbert Fire Disaster Communications and Mesa Fire/Medical Honor Guard Pipes and Drums made it exceptionally memorable,” says Dr. Farris, who is a state clinical director for FUNFitness. “It was a great way to combine Patriot Day and the National Day of Service with a large multi-disciplinary service event for Special Olympic athletes of Arizona.”

Also participating in the day’s festivities was Olympic swimmer Misty Hyman. Hyman, who won a gold medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, serves as a spokesperson for ASDOH’s global oral health initiatives and helps the University promote health and wellness. With her gold medal in tow, she welcomed athletes, signed autographs, and gave inspirational remarks during the opening ceremony.

“There is an important reason why sports are such a great part of our society – it’s because sports are one of the best illustrations of human potential,” says Hyman. “There are very few other places in our lives where we can see so clearly the results of hard work and effort.”

Olympic swimmer Misty Hyman shares her gold medal with athletes and volunteers.

Olympic swimmer Misty Hyman shares her gold medal with athletes and volunteers.

Offering pre-participation screenings and examinations allow students to improve their hands-on and patient communication skills while gaining an understanding of the people inside the bodies of Special Olympic athletes – their personalities, needs, abilities, and desires to be accepted for who they are. Prior to the Healthy Athletes® event, some students had not interacted with individuals with intellectual disabilities. Interacting with a diverse group of athletes spanning different ages, races, and disabilities affords students the opportunity to expand their cultural awareness.

“It was a very inspiring day and combined our disciplines as well as faculty and staff,” says Keenan, who serves as a state clinical director for MedFest. “The event was perhaps the largest Special Olympics activity for ATSU so far, but it is just one of the events our students participate in.”

In August, ATSU joined with Special Olympics Arizona to offer Healthy Athletes® screenings on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. Traveling nearly six hours to Monument Valley, the group of faculty members and students, led by Keenan, provided the first ever Navajo Nation MedFest event for athletes with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“For the first time, we examined athletes on the Navajo reservation,” says Harvey Simon, MD, JD, FAAP, associate professor, pediatrics, SOMA. “This was a wonderful time to learn about the Navajo culture and interact with the athletes.”

Bucky high-fives kids as they are welcomed to ATSU's Healthy Athletes event.

Bucky high-fives kids as they are welcomed to ATSU’s Healthy Athletes event.

ATSU students also participate annually in the Special Olympics State Summer Games and Fall Games. Just like the All In event, students provide pre-participation screenings and examinations for athletes. Students also volunteer to provide emergency medical services during these games. In the past, physician assistant students primarily volunteered for this service, but now, all ATSU students are encouraged to participate through ATSU’s Event Medical Services Team. In October, both medical and physician assistant students paired with military medical providers to deliver first aid and emergency medical services at the State Fall Games.

Because of these events and the dedication ATSU has demonstrated, Special Olympics recognized the University with several awards including recognition from Special Olympics International sponsored by the Golisano Foundation. At the state level, Special Olympics Arizona Healthy Athletes® named Keenan as Outstanding Clinician of the Year. Special Olympics Arizona Healthy Athletes® also recognized Keenan; Dr. Farris; Tabitha Parent-Buck, AuD, chair, audiology, ASHS; Tim Lukavsky, DDS, assistant director, ASDOH; Marc Shlossman, DDS, MS, assistant professor, ASDOH; and Karen Fallone, RDH, instructor, ASDOH, for their many years of commitment.

“The opportunity for such an underserved population to receive great care is so important, but the emphasis and training being taught to the future healthcare providers attending ATSU will change so many lives in the future,” says Tim Martin, president and CEO, Special Olympics Arizona. “ATSU always ensures that our athletes feel valued and cared for.”

Special smiles

Bridging the gap between oral healthcare and people with special needs, ATSU held its annual Day for Special Smiles on Oct. 31. During the event, 78 patients received free dental care including X-rays, cleanings, fluoride treatments, fillings, extractions, oral hygiene education, and other services. More than 150 ATSU and community volunteers joined together to provide $15,000 in dental treatment. Each patient also received medical and muscular screenings, thanks to students and faculty members from the Athletic Training, Audiology, Occupational Therapy, Physician Assistant Studies, and Osteopathic Medicine programs.

Day for Special Smiles provides more than $15,000 in dental treatment.

Day for Special Smiles provides more than $15,000 in dental treatment.

ATSU was the first university in the country to host Day for Special Smiles, which began in 2011, and it now serves as a model for other schools to implement. The event fills a critical void for individuals with special needs. The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the dominant health insurer for the majority of this population, does not cover dental care for those 21 or older. As a result, many individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities suffer from untreated oral diseases.

“I lived for months with extreme oral pain, and I can’t imagine going for years with a tooth abscess or active periodontal disease,” says Mai-Ly Duong, DMD, MPH, ’12, an assistant professor at ASDOH who works primarily in the Special Needs Care Unit.

Dr. Duong, who was born with a birth defect, overcame her own personal challenges and pursued a career in dentistry. She graduated from ASDOH in 2012 and now serves as faculty coordinator for Day for Special Smiles. She has volunteered with the event since its inception five years ago and considers it her way of giving back to the School, the University, and the community.

“I identify myself with this population,” says Dr. Duong. “Even if I wasn’t a faculty member, I would still volunteer my time for this event.”

Dr. Duong enjoys every moment of Day for Special Smiles. From the patients dressed in Halloween costumes, laughing and playing educational games, to the students and faculty excited to work together and help patients, everyone has fun. She especially loves to see patients smiling as they leave the clinic.

One patient, a 17-year-old male, had a tongue-tie since birth. He spent his whole life without being able to stick out his tongue. By the time he left the event, he had a big smile on his face and was sticking out his tongue at the volunteers.

Another patient had only nine teeth left in his mouth. The rest were broken to the gum line with severe infections. He was in this condition for two years and was in pain every time he ate. The volunteers were able to remove the teeth and the infection.

“We talked to him the next day, and he said the pain he felt from the extractions was less than the pain he endured the last two years,” Dr. Duong says.

Antonio Chester, who has competed in Special Olympics for five years, traveled from Ganado, Ariz., to attend Day for Special Smiles.

Antonio Chester, who has competed in Special Olympics for five years, attends Day for Special Smiles.

Additionally, volunteers were able to identify a patient with a very rare syndrome who had significant gum growth. The growth made it difficult for him to clean and properly maintain his teeth. Through the event, he is now connected with the proper resources at ATSU and within the community to treat his condition.

Day for Special Smiles clearly benefits the individuals who receive care, as well as the students who learn how to provide it. It’s also another opportunity for students from different disciplines to work together and learn to provide cohesive care as a team. On a state and national level, the event is raising awareness about the importance for individuals with special needs to receive oral healthcare services, since oral health is directly related to overall health.

Special lessons

Helping individuals with special needs has become so important at ATSU that it has become part of the students’ curricula. Students who participate in special needs events may receive credit for service learning or clinical experience. In fact, physician assistant and physical therapy students are required to participate as part of their courses.

“We are ‘walking the talk’ by ensuring our students have the necessary training and hands-on exposure to patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities in their specific disciplines as well as through interprofessional opportunities,” says Keenan.

After each activity, students write reflection papers about their experience. They often choose to combine the science and medicine aspect of intellectual and developmental disabilities with their feelings about their interactions and the people they were able to help.

“I liked working one-on-one with a physician and being able to complete a physical alone and then have the physician check my findings,” says one student volunteer. “This was a confidence booster and a little taste of what is to come.”

ATSU students improve their hands-on and patient communication skills while gaining an understanding of complex medical conditions.

ATSU students improve their hands-on and patient communication skills while gaining an understanding of complex medical conditions.

Another student volunteer says, “I would attend this experience again due to the happiness that comes from working with individuals with special needs.”

Including individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in teaching and practice improves their access to care. ATSU students learn in a guided interdisciplinary environment while meaningfully engaging with a large, underserved population group that includes people of all ages and cultures. The hope is students’ involvement with Special Olympics and individuals with special needs will continue as they graduate and move into their various disciplines.

“Special Olympic athletes are a very interesting group,” says Dr. Simon. “Students can learn a great deal about unusual medical conditions, but more importantly, they can learn about overcoming disabilities.”

A special joy

Undoubtedly, helping patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities leaves a lasting impression on those who provide them care. Anyone who has ever been a part of or even watched a Special Olympics competition can see the joy on the faces of athletes, their coaches, and their families. For these dedicated athletes, it’s not about winning and losing. It’s about their ability to overcome challenges and to be part of a team.

Student volunteers provide screenings for athletes during the All In event.

Student volunteers provide screenings for athletes during the All In event.

“The most special stories come from the athletes, when they come up and show you their individual medals and tell you about their event. When a young mom is watching her special athlete compete among peers and you can see the tears in her eyes – and then I can’t see because of the tears in mine,” says Dr. Farris. “Participating with Special Olympic athletes is joy.”

Whether participation is on a personal basis or as part of a University effort, individuals with special needs hold a special place in many hearts across ATSU. A T-shirt that is often worn around campus says, “Be careful. Volunteering for Special Olympics can be addictive.” Perhaps it’s a good addiction to have, especially when the results are healthy children and adults who are able to give it their all in the arena of sports.