Chih Hua Liu's visit to Healthy Athletes Opening Eyes at the 2009 World Winter Games in February ended in an ambulance ride to the emergency room with dangerously high pressure in his eye. When Bill Lutz went to a Healthy Hearing screening later that week, he was wearing obsolete hearing aids that left him virtually unable to hear. Recent follow-up interviews found that these athletes and many others like them are still benefiting from the interventions received at Healthy Athletes, as well as their overall Special Olympics experience.
"It has been a big benefit," said Tom Stephenson, Lutz's cousin and caregiver for the past 12 years. Lutz has been using his new hearing aids successfully since receiving them, and they continue to have a great impact on both him and his family. "It's easier for me to communicate with him," Stephenson added.
Lutz's story is not unique. A follow-up study conducted by Dr. Ruth Bentler, Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, on athletes who received hearing aids at the Boise games found that 76.3% are using the devices, a percentage that roughly matches successful hearing aid use in the general population.
This is especially good news considering the relative lack of resources people with intellectual disabilities often have for follow-up visits and device replacement and servicing, according to Dr. Gil Herer, Founder and Global Clinical Advisor for Healthy Hearing. "It is remarkable to have this high of a use rate," he said.
Internationally, the resources available for people with intellectual disabilities who have hearing loss vary significantly. "Typically, these athletes from around the world are not in traditional family environments, so there may not be a parent to help them look after their hearing aids," Dr. Bentler said. "additionally, many of these athletes are from parts of the world where hearing aid provision is uncommon, resulting in few resources for them and their caretakers to turn to with questions and/or problems."
Despite these obstacles, the athletes who are now successfully using their new hearing aids come from countries around the globe such as El Salvador, Jordan, Korea, Morocco, Slovenia, Yemen and others.
Chih Hua Liu's eye problem, known as closed-angle glaucoma, was treated with medicated eye drops while he was in Boise, and Dr. Jack Zarybnisky, the volunteer doctor who performed the screening and discovered the condition, was able to secure medication for Liu to take home.
In October, Special Olympics East Asia followed up with Liu. According to Ms. Su Min Chen, his coach, his general health has never been better, and he has not experienced any symptoms of glaucoma since returning home.
In addition to the attention to his medical needs, Liu's trip to the World Winter Games has given him greater self confidence and better communication and relationship skills. These benefits are also very common among Special Olympics athletes, according to research. More than 90% of athletes from all countries studied experienced increased self-esteem and self confidence.
Liu's story is even more poignant considering that he almost didn’t have the opportunity to participate in Boise. Raised in an orphanage in his earlier years, Liu was reunited with his father about six years ago and started competing. His father was initially skeptical of the long trip to the United States, but changed his mind after Liu's coach spoke to him. That decision may have saved Liu’s eyesight and had lasting impacts in his life.