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EDITOR’s NOTE: The following is a guest blog by Mary Manley. Mary is a fan and friend of Special Olympics. She is also a wife, mother and long-time Chicagoan with a happy and thankful heart. 

It is worth celebrating that this is the 15th year Chicago MedFest has been making the seemingly impossible happen. Hundreds of volunteers from Advocate Medical Group, Illinois College of Optometry, Lions Club International, United Center and GE joined forces with Special Olympics Illinois on November 13, 2013. Over the course of only five hours, 1,434 aspiring and current athletes received physical exams and eye evaluations. The reason for this annual event is to insure that every one who wants to participate in Special Olympics can.

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“It’s nice.”

Not exactly a dramatic beginning. But like many things on this day, what is said only in words or numbers leaves out the best part of the story. Like the huge enthusiastic grins that went with this athlete’s answer to “How is MedFest?” and “What do you think of Special Olympics?” Only when those grins are added in do you begin to capture the excitement of the day. It is visible in the faces of just about every one at MedFest.

Of course MedFest has had its dramatic moments. For example some years back at MedFest a doctor caught a life-threatening heart condition that literally saved a child’s life. But again, there is something worth celebrating in the relative absence of this kind of story today. As one doctor who has been coming virtually every year since MedFest’s beginning said, “I got regulars now.” The rarity of drama is a testament to the benefits of consistent exposure to quality health care. And MedFest provides that.

In that same vein, everyone can appreciate the generosity of United Center. It has opened its doors and staff to MedFest for the 15th year in a row now. But United Center brings more than lots of free space to the party. It brings the World Champion Chicago Black Hawks out to practice on the ice. Can you imagine the excitement of getting to watch the Black Hawks practice live while you wait to see a doctor? Now factor in the occasions when an athlete received a signed hockey stick or a doctor got a puck. The personal connections made may be remembered even longer than all the excitement.

Hundreds of volunteer health care professionals from Advocate Medical Group and the Illinois College of Optometry volunteer their time for MedFest. Their participation has a huge in-kind value. But what you don’t see in the numbers is the continuous welcoming smiles, enthusiastic high fives and countless stickers they share with the athletes. Their comments reflect their genuine affection for the athletes. One doctor who has a long history with MedFest said, “I look forward to it every year. It’s great because the kids look forward to coming and the doctors do too. They (the athletes) deserve the best of life that can be given.” A physician’s assistant who was volunteering for her third year said, “It’s been a lot of fun. It’s a great event where we do these sports physicals so they can be active in activities they want to do. When you’re here (you) just keep a smile on your face and make sure that the person you are seeing is having a good time…make sure it’s a good experience for them.” Another physician, who has actually never missed a year since MedFest started, simply said, “I love it!”

Of course everyone understands the benefits of MedFest for the athletes. Equally important is the training and experience MedFest brings to the medical staff. One physician remarked that he had never treated such a large volume of patients with these athlete’s particular needs before Medfest. Obviously, his and everyone else’s experience at MedFest significantly enriches their abilities to work with similar people in their day-to-day practice. But there are other more subtle lessons that the health care professionals learn from their interactions with these athletes. One physician volunteered that the experience has made her grateful for what she has. And a physician’s assistant had this to share: “It helps you to remember that you have to treat everybody as someone special…as an individual… and give attention to them.”

One of the coaches shared a story about Samantha, one of her athletes. The story illustrates something else the athletes have to teach us. It also explains why, if you tell Samantha that you hear she is a runner, she will give you a smile that will stay with you for the rest of the day.

When Samantha first started training for Special Olympics, walking the few blocks between her school and the park was daunting. In fact, she had to sit down and rest to do it. So, when Samantha was ready to run a 50-meter race at a Special Olympics event, she was rightfully proud. But luck was not on Samantha’s side. Through one of those cosmic mix-ups, Samantha ended up in the wrong place – at the site for the 100-meter race. Samantha had never run a 100-meter race in her life. To make matters worse, the race was already finished. But the referees could see that Samantha really wanted to run. They explained that she could not win anything officially. However, if she still wanted to run it was OK with them. Samantha was psyched. She ran the track. Her first 100-meter race ever and it was without the benefit of competitors to either help pace or motivate.

In the meantime, her coach was not aware of history being made across the field. All she knew was that she wanted Samantha to have a chance to shine in the 50 meter. So she negotiated for Samantha’s 50-meter heat to be moved to a later slot. That gave her time to locate Samantha. The field between the two races loomed larger than usual to Samantha after her 100-meter adventure. Still Samantha did not give up. She arrived just in time for the rescheduled race. Of course, Samantha was no longer on an even playing field with her competitors. But she ran anyway – because Samantha has the spirit of a champion.

Dr. Rayner, a physician who has participated at MedFest for 14 of its 15 years, seems to look at life a similar way. When asked what he would like to say to the athletes he said, “Know that you are loved… I encourage you to be the best that you can… I say, don’t be good – always be great!”

That is the spirit Samantha and so many of these athletes have. And, perhaps because of their example, it shows up in the people around them surprisingly often as well. It makes one wonder if SO should have a duel meaning – Special Olympics and Spirit Olympics.

It seems appropriate to end with a quote from a 15-year old athlete. When asked what she would like to say to the doctors (and all the organizations and many volunteers) at MedFest, Robin became very thoughtful. She took the offer seriously. Suddenly her face broke into a smile and she spoke from her heart. “Thank you.”

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2 thoughts on “When Smiles Count More Than Words

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  2. Is it possible that the unadorned honesty and sincerity that people bring to such situations actually creates sacred spaces, where all can feel protected, healed, humbled and thankful?

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