Two and half years ago, I was tasked with ensuring that an efficient and effective medical care system was in place for the delegates from 164 countries and thousands of spectators who would attend the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games. A lot of work later and many late nights, I can now look back on this experience—it was a mammoth task, but the most worthwhile one of my career to date.
With the support of amazingly diligent medical staff members (four nurses: Mia Jordison, Donal Moynihan, Eimear McAuliffe and Claire Codd, and business operations consultant Murton Mann), a group of multidisciplinary health professionals, 140 medical managers and hundreds of medical volunteers, we planned, managed and (in association with the Department of Health and Children, the health boards and voluntary first aid agencies) operated a 24-hour medical system throughout the period of the Games. This medical operation crossed the public and private healthcare sectors, voluntary agencies and legal jurisdictions. A four-tiered medical system of care was implemented: first aid centres (at all venues), medical centres (at all venues), three physiotherapy clinics, two polyclinics (hospital-based assessment and treatment units for non-emergency medical and surgical illnesses), an ambulance transportation network and a medical command and control centre.
The official games period was thirteen days, but for medical services this extended to three weeks approx, as medical support was provided at both the set-up and tear-down of venues and from the arrival to the departure of all delegations’ members (which for our last delegation member was two weeks after the closing ceremony). We faced many challenges. Of course, one which caused more than a minor headache was SARS! The 07:30 contingency planning meetings, the strategic planning between intra-state health agencies and the WHO, to meeting government representatives from affected areas still gives me an adrenaline rush.
Another critical task was ensuring that all relevant medical information and medical consent forms were obtained from all 7000 athletes. The massive size of this job became evident when a form attempted to identify, for example, an athlete from Botswana whose address was ‘opposite the graveyard’, a thumbprint ‘signature’ on a consent-form, or an individual with neither forename nor surname, nor date of birth.
Some of the many other challenges included recruiting, training and checking the professional registrations of over 2000 medical personnel, sourcing medical insurance for all the medical volunteers, accessing and disposing of medical supplies.
It is hard to believe that 365 days ago on midsummer’s night 2003, the biggest sporting event ever held in Ireland officially began. My house even became a mini Special Olympics venue. Our houseguests had to be asked to provide their own food if they wanted to eat, and bed-space was at a premium. However, one of my housemates kindly volunteered as Uniform Washer—ensuring that three of the household awoke each morning to cleanly ironed uniforms ready for action.
For me, the day of the Opening Ceremony began with forgetting one friend’s valuable ceremony tickets, and a meeting with two of the medical staff—after working all night to ensure that the final ‘i’s were dotted and t’s crossed’. Driving through Drumcondra that evening, the atmosphere was electric and carnival-like. My emotions ran wild, tears rolled down my face as I thought, YES, WE’VE DONE IT! THE GAMES ARE HAPPENING HERE IN IRELAND! I can still see the buses zooming by on their way to Clonliffe College, with the delegations on board, all of them dressed in official team gear, for the parade of athletes and so many thousands of people walking and driving toward Croke Park.
The parade began, adrenaline was rushing along every nook and cranny of Clonliffe College and Croke Park. We walked and re-walked, checking that everything was under control and dealing with minor issues. With over 80,000 people in the stadium, it was amazing to stand on the pitch and view the sea of colour, familiar faces in the crowd shouting greetings … offering words of congratulations … and the event was only beginning!
The Irish teams arrival was the highlight for me’. The stadium shook with the welcome they received. It was a true recognition of their achievement to see them walk side by side, on equal standing with Ronnie Delaney, Eamonn Coughlan, DJ Carey and other notable Irish sports personalities. I can remember sitting in a portacabin behind the Olympics flame cauldron, discussing a potential problem with the Director of Ceremonies, the Event Controller and Emergency Planning Office. We watched a portable TV in the corner, and as the torch was placed on the cauldron we were praying that the flame would ignite—that we wouldn’t have a repeat of the Sydney Olympics!
One of the memories that will live with me from the Opening Ceremony was my dad’s comment the following day that he would ‘never again see the likes of it in my lifetime’ and, the only negative comment, ‘could they (U2) not turn the sound down a bit?’ Imagine asking Bono to comply with that! Truthfully, none of us will experience it again.
The ending fireworks mirrored the next eight days which were electric. I hit the bed bed at 2 am and rose again at 6 (a ‘full night’s sleep’). The ‘normal routine’ of the days included managing mini-crises, checking in regularly with our Medical Command Centre, meeting heads of delegations, briefing the medical management team, attending conference calls with DOHC and National Disease and Surveillance and games organising committee meetings, visiting medical-teams at venues, viewing sport competitions and, of course, managing the daily medical operations. Our teams were superb, and the operation ran smoothly. Our electronic patient management and recording system ensured that up-to-the minute medical records of the 4500 medical incidents, before and during the games, were available at all 70 Dublin venues and in the 164 Host Towns.
The Closing ceremony arrived—athletes, volunteers and family members sang, danced, many shedding a few tears. The stands were illuminated with lights. One of my most nostalgic moments that night was waiting for Westlife’s Nicky Byrne to leave the stage to meet a terminally-ill spectator (her wish was to meet Westlife) and then watching her get up from her wheelchair for a photograph with one of her icons. The smile on her face as her photograph was taken was worth a million euros to her and her family.
Looking back, I wonder what I would change if I were back in May 2003. And the answer is, only minor changes to our plans. The health services of Ireland, the volunteers and the Games organising medical staff placed themselves on the international stage as the leading provider of healthcare at international sporting events. This view has been consolidated by a request to produce a template for medical operations for future Special Olympics European and International Games and to act as the medical advisor at future Special Olympics World Games. But the greatest legacy of all, for me, is the awareness that has grown within the Irish community at large, among young and old, of the abilities—not the disabilities—of persons with intellectual impairments.