With 3,500 Special Olympics athletes, coaches and delegates on the UCLA campus for the world games, there are bound to be few minor medical situations that arise for competitors in the heat of the moment on the playing field and in sports facilities.

And that’s why the UCLA Health Special Olympics Polyclinic has been there to help since it opened on July 24.

Based at the UCLA Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center in Bruin Plaza, any athlete or delegate who needs medical attention can visit the clinic, which is staffed by a rotating team of 70 UCLA physicians, nurses, technicians and support staff.   

Maria Moreira, 16, a Special Olympics gymnast from Portugal, stopped by the clinic with her coach for a follow-up visit to check on her twisted ankle, which she injured before she could compete in any of her events. When the doctor examined her ankle and gave her the news that she was well enough to compete in her final event, she broke out into a a big smile and gave her doctor a high-five. 


“When we clear an athlete to go back on the field, they are so excited,” said Kerry Gold, lead nurse for the polyclinic and pediatric liaison nurse in the Emergency Department at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.  “Hugs and high fives — that’s our motto around here.”

Reed Hutchinson/UCLA
Sigurdur Gudmundsson, 21, a soccer player from Iceland, sought treatment after he was kicked in the ankle during a game. Laura McDonough, manager of the polyclinic, puts a UCLA souvenir pin on his lanyard. The exchange of pins "is an instant connection that can be made, even with language/communication barriers," she said.

UCLA Health is providing all the staff, materials and supplies for the 11-day clinic. All of the services and prescriptions are free of charge to patients. On average, about 30 patients a day have sought treatment.

In addition to treating sprained ankles, knee injuries, dehydration and doing sports physical exams, they have also helped refill prescriptions left by mistake back home, replaced broken eyeglasses and even supplied a replacement hearing aid for one delegate.

“Upon arriving to the clinic, staff can access the athlete’s medical history that was provided to Special Olympics,” said Mark Mayes, UCLA Health co-chair of the world games and executive director of emergency, trauma services and performance excellence. “A special app also documents any treatment received prior to coming into the clinic, such as a sprained ankle that was already iced on the field.”

Since most of the patients are from foreign countries, and many do not speak English, the staff relies on other delegates to help translate, a translation app or the UCLA Health translator services. 

“The Special Olympics are unifying for all people,” said Laura McDonough, an administrative fellow with UCLA Health Operations and manager of the polyclinic. “I may not know their language or where their country is on the map, but I feel like we all connect on a human level, and I’m glad we can give back and provide them with excellent medical care.”

The clinic has seen athletes from all over the world — from Bolivia, Russia, Italy, Finland, Australia, Costa Rica, Portugal, Bangladesh and many other distant nations.

In fact, staff members have been marking patients’ countries on a world map hung on the clinic wall, and they’ve been exchanging UCLA souvenir pins for pins and bracelets that the athletes have brought from their countries.

“All of the Special Olympic athletes have such an innocence and tenderness about them and such an incredible sense of appreciation,” added Dr. Lynn McCullough, medical director of the emergency department at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center who is overseeing the clinic. “It’s very joyful.”