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Special Olympics Role Model Spreads Message of Oral Care

Photos: Courtesy of Phil Ellsworth

Growing up, Dustin Plunkett had a speech impediment and slurred his words. Who knew the kid who had a tough time making friends would grow up to be both a TV broadcaster and a mentor for athletes with special needs?

Plunkett, aged 37, who also has an intellectual disability, wasn’t able to pronounce words with the letters S, T, or P as a child. “All you would hear was more air than sound,” Plunkett says. “It was hard for me to talk and communicate and make friends.”

Then, in fifth grade, his speech therapist diagnosed him with a cleft palate, a condition in which the roof of the mouth, the palate, doesn’t properly join together while the fetus is in utero. Plunkett is grateful for that diagnosis, as well as for the four-hour surgery and three-month recovery that followed, during which he was only able to eat soft foods delivered by syringe. 

After the operated area healed, Plunkett attended remedial speech therapy, which over time helped him overcome his stuttering and slurring. “It changed things a lot,” he says. “I was able to communicate better. I wasn’t scared to go and talk to people and try to make friends.”

A Special Olympics rising star

After those early experiences, Plunkett became more heavily involved in team sports and activities. Over 20 years ago he joined Special Olympics Southern California, in which he took up softball (his favorite sport), floor hockey, basketball, flag football, tennis, and bowling. 

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It was at one of these sporting events that, in 2004, Plunkett’s coach asked him why his cheeks were swollen, and if he was in pain. Though Plunkett wasn’t in pain, he listened to his coach when he encouraged him to get his cheeks checked out at Special Smiles during the summer games. The Special Smiles program is part of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes® initiative, which offers free health and dental screenings to athletes.

“I was diagnosed with gum cancer,” says Plunkett, who after the diagnosis had oral surgery to remove the cancer. “Since this saved my life, now I always say that my heart is always in our Healthy Athletes program, especially Special Smiles. You never know what’s wrong with you until you get screened.”

Spreading the love

The experience was so impactful that Plunkett has since gone on to encourage other athletes to get screened themselves. In particular, Plunkett remembers urging one athlete experiencing mouth pain to get it checked out. The tests revealed that this athlete had a broken lower jaw that had also become infected. 

Empowering patients is an important part of the work Plunkett does. He recalls doctors informing his parents about his diagnoses and treatments, rather than directly to him. Plunkett wants medical and dental schools to better teach doctors how to work with patients of all abilities. 

“Our doctors that are a part of Healthy Athletes and Special Smiles are trained to work with people with intellectual disabilities and can really communicate on our level with us,” he says. “They tell us everything that’s going on, what’s wrong, and how to fix it.”

Plunkett, leader of leaders

From humble beginnings, Plunkett now runs the Special Olympics athlete leadership program, and feels blessed and thankful to be in this role, to share his story, and to help others share and write their own. “I started out so shy and not outgoing,” he remembers. “And now I’m all outgoing and sharing everything with the world.”

That once-shy kid just so happened to be an on-air broadcaster for ESPN’s coverage of the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games and the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games.

Kristen Castillo, [email protected]

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