Mandy Abbott, Podiatry Postgraduate Programme Lead, talks to Clare Rajan about what she – and her students – are learning from her work with international athletes.
It may seem hard to believe that someone with life-threatening injuries to their feet could walk, never mind compete in a sport at international level.
Yet, as a podiatrist for the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles in 2015, Mandy Abbott encountered a young man attempting to do just that.
A lecturer in podiatry at GCU, Mandy has been a Clinical Director for Fit Feet in Great Britain, part of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes programme, since 2005. The programme aims to identify health problems for athletes with an intellectual disability and advise them on healthy lifestyle choices.
“His injuries were horrific,” Mandy recalls of the young athlete. “When he took off his shoes, we could see that he had huge ulcers on both feet, which were so bad, the bones were exposed.”
Despite this, he had travelled a very long distance to the games in LA to compete in bowling. What is even more astonishing is that no one picked up on it.
“He came with a team; he got on a plane with them, travelled to America, and nobody noticed,” says Mandy, adding: “He was only brought in by his coach to be fitted for new trainers.”
While extreme, it’s just one example of the types of cases Mandy has dealt with.
A trained podiatrist with a specialist interest in biomechanics and sports injuries, Mandy has led Fit Feet at the Special Olympics National Games in Glasgow, Bath, Leicester and Brighton and been invited to volunteer at the World Games in Idaho and Athens.
As well as offering a health-screening service, Fit Feet facilitates the collection of data on health inequalities among athletes with intellectual disabilities and provides an opportunity for healthcare professionals who volunteer at the games to gain experience of working with this population.
It has also been a foundation of practical experience for students on the podiatry programme at GCU, some of whom have attended the games with Mandy. Last year, Mandy was invited by the International Games Committee to attend the World Games in LA, and students Martin McCafferty and Sharon McQuillan were successful in applying to accompany her.
In the five days over which the games took place, Mandy and the students were involved in screening 4500 athletes.
This involved measuring athletes’ foot size against their shoe size, looking for deformities, and fitting them with a new pair of shoes, provided courtesy of the Games’ sponsors.
“It’s great for their CV,” says Mandy. “The students got to meet and work with international podiatrists and with athletes with an intellectual disability from 160 countries. Their eyes were opened to the poverty and deprivation, and to the healthcare system, in other countries.
We worked with athletes who had deformities like you wouldn’t believe. In this country, they would just have surgery.”
However, although this population in the UK is well looked after, and there are learning disability services within the NHS, Mandy points out that foot or lower limb disorders can often go unnoticed. Independent living is encouraged, with people washing and dressing themselves, meaning their feet are rarely seen by anyone else. Added to this, they may never complain about pain because they either have no concept of pain or don’t know how to explain what’s wrong with them.
“I have seen some people who have never cut their toenails,” Mandy explains. “Some have been wearing completely the wrong-sized shoes simply because they liked them, so they bought them. It’s also not uncommon for people who live in shared accommodation to pick up someone else’s shoes and put them on.”
Students have also had the opportunity to shadow Mandy on visits in her capacity as the official podiatrist for both Kilmarnock and Dundee United Football Clubs, and to learn from her involvement in other major sporting events. In 2014, she was invited to be the Clinical Lead for Podiatry at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, with responsibility for recruiting volunteers, setting standards of care and providing the service during – and in the weeks leading up to – the Games. And through this, she was invited by the International European Committee of the Olympic Games to be the podiatrist for the first ever European Games, in Baku, Azerbaijan, in June 2015.
While only registered clinicians are allowed access to athletes at professional events, students are still able to benefit from Mandy’s experience.
“I always make sure I pass on to students what I’ve learned while working in a multidisciplinary team in this unique environment. I highlight common injuries and how barriers to care, such as language, training regimes, footwear and surfaces, and anti-doping laws, can be overcome, for example. So the students get something out of it too.”