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As always, Special Olympics Illinois wants to provide athletes, families, youth leaders, coaches and anyone interested, with opportunities to …

When Smiles Count More than Words


Volunteer Mary Manley visited the 15th annual MedFest at United Center in Chicago to hear from doctors and athletes about why this event is so important to each of them.

By Mary Manley, Special Olympics Illinois volunteer

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 Clubs 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 necessary for their participation in Special Olympics.  Many hundreds also had vision screenings and received free glasses if needed.  The reason for this annual event is to insure that every one who wants to participate in Special Olympics can.



United Center

A Simple Beginning

“It’s nice.”

Smiling MedFest AthleteNot 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.

Thanks to the United Center

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 the United Center brings more than lots of free space to the party.  It brings the World Champion Chicago Blackhawks out to practice on the ice.  Can you imagine the excitement of getting to watch the Blackhawks 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.

Advocate Medical Group and ICO

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.  Advocate Staff at MedFest 2Their 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 athletes 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.”

It’s All About the Personal Stories

Opening Eyes ScreeningOne 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.

Volunteer Excited at MedFestSo 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.

“Always be Great”

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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MedFest Began 15 Years Ago with a Simple Question


Fifteen years ago, Howard Pizer, Senior Executive Vice President of the White Sox and United Center, asked Special Olympics executives a simple question: “What is the biggest impediment to having more athletes participate in Special Olympics?” The answer: “Getting families to take their children to the doctor to fill out the required Special Olympics medical application.” Pizer said, “Not a problem anymore here in Chicago. We’ll have athletes come here to the United Center to get their physicals!” 

That’s how the MedFest idea was born and for 15 years has enabled thousands of Special Olympics athletes in Chicago to keep their medical applications up to date. United Center donates the space and Advocate Medical Group provides the more than 100 physicians and clinical and non-clinical staff. They are supplemented by a group of volunteers from the United Center, GE and other groups.

Dr. Rick Bones examines a Chicago athlete at the 2012 MedFest at the United Center.

Dr. Rick Bones examines a Chicago athlete at the 2012 MedFest at the United Center.

Pipe and drape partitions are set up for a series of “examining” stations in the corridor of Chicago’s United Center, home of the Chicago Blackhawks and the Chicago Bulls. Dr. Rick Bone became the point person from Advocate at the beginning and he is still the Clinical Director for MedFest. “The doctors and staff of Advocate look forward to this event each year and the interaction they’re able to have with the athletes,” Dr. Bone said.

And how about the athletes? Most of the athletes are from the Chicago Public Schools. MedFest gives them a chance to see the inside of United Center where the Bulls and Hawks play. In fact, the Chicago Blackhawks are often practicing when the athletes are sitting in the arena waiting for their turn to go through the cycle at MedFest. Their visit includes not just the medical exam, but a chance to have their eyes examined free at the Special Olympics Opening Eyes area (sponsored by Lions Clubs International) where they’ll receive free glasses if needed. They also enjoy a box lunch and receive a goodie bag to take home.

The 15th annual Chicago MedFest takes place on Nov. 13 and is supported by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, GE, Advocate Medical Group and United Center. Nearly 1,500 athletes are expected to be processed that day. The Chicago MedFest has become a model for Special Olympics MedFests that now take place at locations around the world.

2013 Chicago MedFest Sponsors