By Jaclyn De Bonis – WUFT contributor
Special Olympics athletes have something to smile about.
Students, residents, assistants and faculty from the University of Florida College of Dentistry traveled to Jasper, Fla., Saturday to offer free care to athletes at the Special Olympics.
Many special-needs patients are turned away by medical professionals, because they often require longer appointments, or the professionals worry how treating these patients will reflect on their practice’s image, said Magda AbdelFattah, a third-year student dentist.
Saturday’s effort was part of the Special Smiles portion of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program.
The Healthy Athletes program launched in 1997, according to the Special Olympics website. It consists of seven areas where Special Olympic athletes can receive free health screenings: podiatry, physical therapy, better health and well-being, audiology, sports physical exams, vision and dentistry.
At Saturday’s event, UF dentistry volunteers performed oral hygiene instruction and dental screenings for the athletes, AbdelFattah said.
“It is an activity where (special-needs patients) can be exposed to dentistry in a low-stress, fun environment,” AbdelFattah said.
Volunteers of the program aimed “to do screenings on all of the athletes that will be participating,” said Edna Pérez, clinical director for the Special Olympics’ Special Smiles program.
Screenings assess possible dental problems and immediate needs and also serve as a simple check up, she said.
The Special Smiles program uses animal puppets as teaching aids, Fall said. Students use the puppets to go over how to brush teeth and for how long, and patients then demonstrate what they learned on the puppets’ teeth.
Athletes were also given donated mouth guards and toothbrushes, said Jennifer Miller, assistant of the director of Special Olympics Healthy Athletes.
The Healthy Athletes program has made a difference in Walter Aurin, his sister said.
Rose Aurin, of Ocala, Fla., said many of the athletes do not have any sort of dental care available, and there are so few dentists willing to take on special-needs patients.
“(We) used to drive 2 1/2 hours to get to a dentist who would see him,” she said.
She said previous health screenings at the event have made her family aware of her brother’s hearing and vision problems that they previously did not know existed.
Her brother has participated with the Special Olympics on and off for the past 38 years, Aurin said. To her family, the Special Olympics is a huge bonding experience and a day that is dedicated to the athletes.
“The eyes light up,” she said of athletes when they are at the games. “There is just this ear-to-ear grin.”
Mike Llerena edited this story online.