— -- In the summer of 2004, a 22-year-old Special Olympics basketball player named Dustin Plunkett walked into a makeshift health clinic at California State University, Long Beach. Plunkett, a Long Beach native, was competing at his local chapter's summer games and taking advantage of free health screenings that have been a staple of Special Olympics since 1997.
A volunteer dentist began to evaluate Plunkett's mouth, which had not been checked in more than a decade. The last time Plunkett had seen a dentist, the doc accidentally shattered one of his teeth. He was terrified of people putting their hands and tools inside his mouth. This time the doctor assured him they weren't going to do anything but look.
Plunkett's teeth were in bad shape, but his gums were worse. The dentist, alarmed by what he saw, recommended that Plunkett pursue follow-up care immediately.
One week later, Plunkett visited a second dentist who X-rayed Plunkett's teeth. Shortly after viewing the pictures, the doctor delivered stunning news: Plunkett had gum cancer.
"They caught it in the early stage before it started to spread outside my mouth," Plunkett says. "I'm thankful for that because I didn't have to do any chemo or radiation. But they said if I would've waited a month longer, it would've spread everywhere and I would've been dead within the year."
In 100 days from now, at the Special Olympics World Games Los Angeles, Plunkett, now 33 and a full-time employee of Special Olympics, will take in an event he represents. And the Healthy Athletes program that saved his life will be on full display. Hundreds of local doctors, many of whom have never worked with an intellectually disabled patient, will evaluate up to 2,500 people per day in their given specialties, like optometry or podiatry (Special Olympics recently found that 63 percent of its athletes wear the wrong size shoe).
Plunkett is not the only Special Olympics athlete whose life has been saved by the Healthy Athletes screenings, which cover everything from eyesight to hearing to nutrition. At last year's European Games in Belgium, a doctor examined 17-year-old Vedrana Novic, a swimmer for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and discovered a potentially fatal infection in her foot. Novic's blood would have been poisoned in three days, according to Belgian podiatrist Carine Haemels. Novic is scheduled to run the 200 and 400 meters in Los Angeles.
In Turkey a few years ago, a doctor performing a routine physical on a 10-year-old girl found a hole in her heart. The resulting surgery -- free to her -- increased her life expectancy by 20 to 30 years, says Dr. Matt Holder, president of the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry and a global health adviser to Special Olympics.
For eight days in Los Angeles, the world's largest healthcare provider for people with intellectual disabilities will churn at full speed -- behind the scenes, as always. For a handful of athletes, it will be their only chance to see a doctor this year. For others, especially those from countries where people with intellectual disabilities are treated like outcasts, it may be their first time ever seeing a doctor, period.