Editor’s Note: The following is a guest blog post by Marc Bernard Ackerman, DMD, MBA, FADPD, FACD, Director of Orthodontics, Boston Children’s Hospital. Dr. Ackerman’s post originally was shared online via Thriving, Boston Children’s Hospital’s pediatric health blog.

Dr. Ackerman (right) with athlete leader Dustin Plunkett

Dr. Marc Ackerman (right) became a believer in Special Olympics Healthy Athletes with help from his friend Dustin Plunkett (left).

Every September, I’m taken back to the fourth grade when Mrs. Henderson passed out black and white marble-colored journals to our class. She explained that over the course of the year we were going to keep a record of all our important fourth grade memories. Our first assignment was to answer the question: what was the most meaningful thing you did this summer?

All these years later, I can’t remember what I wrote, but I do remember Mrs. Henderson being underwhelmed by the responses she saw. One kid wrote about visiting a relative on a farm and riding a tractor. Another bragged about attending NASA space camp. Fun times for a child, but what I think Mrs. Henderson was hoping for was a recount by a student who had spent his time helping someone else. In keeping with that theme, Mrs. Henderson spent the year exposing us to can drives for the hungry, blanket drives for the homeless, spring clean-up at the school park and many other volunteer activities.

It was a concept that resonated with me, but throughout my professional education and career thus far, finding time to devote to altruistic activities has been hard. Any excess of time has been taken for professional development, and more recently, to starting a family of my own.

However, my outlook on how to allocate “free” time and how it related to helping others was forever changed this past summer when my good friend and colleague, Steve Perlman, DDS [and Special Olympics Special Smiles’ Senior Global Clinical Advisor], invited me to participate in a train-the-trainer session for Healthy Athletes Special Smiles by Special Olympics Southern California.

At first, I was slightly hesitant to accept the offer to become the Healthy Athletes Special Smiles Clinical Director, because I doubted I’d ever have the time to devote so much to that movement. Fortunately for me, Steve’s not the kind of guy who takes “no” for an answer.

Before long, I found myself on a plane bound for California, mulling with mild skepticism about what impact the Healthy Athletes program may have on the participating athletes. But soon after arriving in California, I met Dustin Plunkett—an athlete, public speaker and Special Olympics International Global Messenger—and I became a believer. Dustin has thrived in his roles as an athlete and Special Olympics ambassador, no easy task for a young man with a speech impediment, cleft palate and intellectual disability. But his passion for the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program helps him overcome many difficulties he may face, and with good reason—he credits it with saving his life.

Dustin grew up with constant oral health problems. He remembers his gums swelling up at least once a month. Then, during the 2003 Special Olympics Southern California Summer Games, Dustin and his coach visited the Healthy Athletes tent. His dental screening revealed some serious problems with his teeth and gums and was referred for a follow-up appointment. He subsequently received a devastating diagnosis: oral cancer. Dustin underwent a difficult surgery to remove a tooth and an inch of gum, but he has since been cancer-free.

Healthy Athletes is a Special Olympics program that provides free health screenings to Special Olympics athletes in seven different health areas: vision, hearing, oral health, healthy lifestyles, general fitness, podiatry and sports physicals. Offered in a fun, welcoming environment, Healthy Athletes screenings remove the anxiety and trepidation that people with intellectual disabilities often experience when faced with a visit to a physician or dentist. In addition to screenings, Healthy Athletes also provides eyeglasses, sunglasses, hearing aids, mouth guards and other free items. With Healthy Athletes, Special Olympics has become the largest global public health organization specifically for people with intellectual disabilities, holding screening events in more than 100 countries.

After meeting my new friend Dustin, I felt compelled to join him on a campaign called Spread the Word to End the Word. Its goal is to raise peoples’ awareness of the derogatory use of the R-Word (retard or retarded) and its negative effects on people with intellectual disabilities, as well as their families and friends. However, this campaign is about more than just raising awareness of the R-word; it is also about changing attitudes of segregation and ignorance, to attitudes of acceptance and respect.

So, in the spirit of Mrs. Henderson and Dustin Plunkett, I hope some of you will consider joining me in making the pledge to End the R-word. (Click the link to learn more!)

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