One of the pillars of Special Olympics North Carolina (SONC), health is a mindset, an action, a flagship in the context of sports programming for individuals with intellectual disabilities. In North Carolina, SONC offers eight Healthy Athletes® disciplines, a Special Olympics program that provides free health screenings and health education in a fun, welcoming environment with a focus on removing the anxiety that people with intellectual disabilities often experience when faced with a visit to a medical professional.
Of those disciplines, MedFest offers the physical exam that athletes need prior to participating in Special Olympics sports programming. SONC MedFest Clinical Director, Meera Gandhi is a physician assistant with Duke Urgent Care Croasdaile in Durham and supports SONC health initiatives by developing and presenting inclusive health trainings for medical students at North Carolina universities, including Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, Campbell University in Buies Creek, Methodist University in Fayetteville and Duke University in Durham.
“I moved to North Carolina for medical school, became a Clinical Director for Special Olympics Health Promotion, then transitioned to being a MedFest Clinical Director and piloting the training for inclusive health for physician assistant students,” said Gandhi. “It’s been really wonderful.”
Beginning her volunteer work with Special Olympics Southern California in high school as a coach, Gandhi then became certified as a Global Messenger mentor, mentoring Dustin Plunkett, a Special Olympics Global Messenger and Health Messenger with Special Olympics Southern California. The pair traveled together for two years, to both China and Idaho for the Special Olympics World Games and to various Healthy Athletes conferences, speaking to the importance of health for Special Olympics athletes.
“I’ve been working with Dustin for a long time, he’s like a brother to me,” said Gandhi. “He did go to the dentist at some point in his childhood and had a bad experience and did not want to return. He did not have great oral health and his coach took him to a Healthy Athletes screening, where a volunteer dentist gave him a referral, did some x-rays and found out that he had gum cancer.”
Plunkett continues to travel internationally, telling his story of how Special Olympics health volunteers saved his life. As one of those many volunteers, Gandhi is an active leader in promoting inclusive health, despite her workload associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was just surviving, treading water,” remarked Gandhi. “I work in an urgent care in the emergency room and at Duke, we’ve been on the frontline for COVID-19. We’ve been innovative in coming up with ways to manage and test patients, it’s been a tough environment. It’s been incredibly fatiguing to be immersed in health care during this pandemic.”
To add to the current state of affairs, there are still many unresolved challenges in the realm of health as it pertains to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Regardless of its impact by way of sports, Special Olympics’ research has shown that people with intellectual disabilities are consistently left out of health systems that are ill-equipped to diagnose and treat them. Medical professionals, like Gandhi, recognize how many people can be reached by partnering with SONC. SONC Health Director Ellen Fahey relies on medical volunteers in educating future health care generations on the importance of being inclusive in their practices.
“Meera has provided tremendous leadership to the SONC health movement as well as the global health movement,” said Fahey. “Her passion, energy and dedication to helping improve the lives of the athletes is invaluable. With her knowledge and skill set we are better able to break down the barriers that keep health care professionals from accessing the tools they need to develop inclusive health practices in to their work. I am grateful to have her part of our Healthy Athletes team.”
That passion, energy and dedication are reflected in Gandhi’s platform as a medical professional. She intends for her impact to be long-lasting.
“It’s so important to everyone, no matter their race, ability, disability to receive the best health care,” said Gandhi. “Historically, the population of people with intellectual disabilities has been ignored or neglected and it’s important to give future health care professionals all the tools to help these individuals succeed, especially when they have difficulty advocating for themselves.”
Inclusive health, being an essential for people of all abilities, Gandhi has elevated her role as an essential worker to that of an advocate.
“I feel a personal responsibility to provide an essential role in taking care of as many Special Olympics athletes as possible,” said Gandhi.