Utah doctor to oversee Paralympics medicine

Published: Friday, April 11 2008 1:05 a.m. MDT

Dr. Stuart Willick

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A University of Utah sports medicine and rehabilitation doctor has been tapped to oversee medical efforts during the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games.

The U. Orthopaedic Center's Dr. Stuart Willick was named IPC Medical Officer by the International Paralympic Committee, an appointment that lasts through the Beijing event. He served a scaled-down version of the role during the the Salt Lake City Paralympics in 2002, overseeing the poly clinic at the U., among other duties. And he's traveled to other Paralympics, including Torino and Sydney, to do sports-medicine research.

In China, he'll be "the" chief medical officer. During Olympic and Paralympic Games, local doctors provide the hands-on care to athletes, as he did in 2002. His 2008 role is primarily administrative, an oversight position that will have him dabbling in policy matters that may include doping, classification of athletes by their impairment and functional ability, health-care delivery and more. He was selected because of his expertise in physical and medical issues for elite athletes who have disabilities. But some of the assignment is, at this point, still a mystery, he said, the details to become clearer as the event gets closer. "Ask me after September (when the Paralympics occur). I'll know a lot more then," he joked.

Willick's interest in working with athletes who are disabled was sparked more than a decade ago while he was doing his residency in Seattle by the Veterans Wheelchair Games. He went to get mandated "event coverage hours." It hooked him.

Paralympics, he pointed out, is shorthand for Parallel Olympics. Some people mistakenly believe it refers to paralysis or disability, Willick said. The primary type of disabilities among competitors include limb deficiencies, spinal cord injury and visual impairment, but there are others, as well.

Despite a long association with Paralympics, the soft-spoken Willick said he hadn't even thought about going to China until he was invited by the IPC to apply for the volunteer position several weeks ago. It was an intriguing invitation, so he sent off his resume and his wife nudged him to renew his soon-to-lapse passport, just in case. A month ago, he was invited to interview.

The questions were not those you'd routinely expect. He was asked how he felt about alternative medicines, since in Beijing athletes will have access to both Western and Eastern medicine. "I'm comfortable with that," he told the Deseret Morning News.

They talked about the fact the Paralympics fall during Ramadan, which has stirred some controversy. Not only is it a holy month for Muslims, but it brings with it food restrictions that may affect participating athletes who practice Islam.

And there is, of course, the question of China and Tibet, a politically hot topic right now. Willick said he just wants to make a contribution to the health and well-being of gifted athletes during an event "whose spirit is bringing people together, not dividing them," he said. And he doesn't expect the Paralympics to be as controversial as its sister event; they simply don't draw the same level of attention. "There's no money to be made in disabled sports. An able-bodied athlete who wins gold can make a lot of money. For us, it's about the sport, the competition and the camaraderie."

But the level of athletic ability and competition is just as intense. Willick sees nothing braver or more challenging than the 65 mph run down the mountain, including curves, that a blind skier makes, for example.

Elite athletes don't have an increase in medical problems, compared to able-bodied athletes. But they do have different health issues. For instance, a shoulder injury to an able-bodied athlete could end participation in the Games. But for an athlete in a wheelchair, it could mean the end to independence.

While sports medicine research has grown, it has lagged in terms of learning from elite disabled athletes, Willick said. Not much is known about the effects of long-term travel on athletes in wheelchairs, for instance. Or whether the same substances should be banned for athletes who have disabilities as for others. There are cases, he said, where a banned substance could be beneficial. Those are all issues that require research, and the Games provide a great opportunity for that.

Willick, a New York native, was wooed to the West by an early-found love of the mountains. He likes to ski, bike, hike and climb. He plans to be in China for about three weeks; his wife will go along for a week, but his young children will stay home.


E-MAIL: lois@desnews.com

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