Attending to Special Athletes

Julie Blehm, a retired internal medicine doctor, combined her medical skills and desire to help others by volunteering for the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi.

Dr. Julie (Bjerke) Blehm ’74 is taking advantage of her recent retirement to be on the go. She recently spent two weeks whitewater rafting the Grand Canyon. She was back in Fargo long enough to take part in the May Concordia Board of Regents meeting before boarding a plane for Bulgaria and then Turkey.

She decided retirement would be both fun and games. Some very specific games – the Special Olympics World Games – were on her list of places to be, serving on the USA medical team. Blehm’s interest in the program began years ago when her daughter competed with Special Olympics. She’s served on the North Dakota Board for Special Olympics and thought the medical team was a good fit when she was asked to apply for the spot.

“The medical team really worked well together,” Blehm says. “A nice aspect of Special Olympics is in most cases they are really good sports. It’s a very positive environment.”

All athletes can get sick or injured though, so the team of three medical doctors and three athletic trainers were available to assist the U.S. athletes during their competition in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. This is the fourth time Blehm has been a part of the medical team for the Special Olympic World Games. She’s also traveled to South Korea, Los Angeles and Austria. Blehm says the athletes’ medical needs are as varied as the people themselves.

“There are some sports-related injuries, sprains and falls. Many of the athletes may also have other medical conditions,” Blehm says.

The medical team had to be on-call to treat the athletes’ medical needs even when they weren’t competing. Blehm thought the team makeup of trainers and doctors was a great blend for the athletes. 

“If there was an ankle injury that needed wrapping we’d always call on the trainers because they are just much better at it. And if there was something more internal they’d call on the doctors,” she says.

While everyone spent a lot of time working with the athletes, they also had a bit of time to get to see the host country including the Grand Mosqu in Abu Dhabi. Blehm says the United Arab Emirates was extremely welcoming and referred to the athletes, all of whom have some sort of disability, as “people of determination.” 

“I liked that,” Blehm says. Over the years, she’s also liked watching high school and college athletes volunteer with Special Olympics, which is usually a learning experience for all involved. More often than not, other athletes will see the athletes with disabilities in a whole new light. 

“They see that [people with special needs] can be happy and can have very fulfilled lives,” Blehm says. “It’s a good reminder that they also contribute to society.”