Penn State physician leads medical team at 2019 Special Olympics World Games

Dr. Peter Seidenberg pauses for a photo with two members of the Hungarian roller skating team after treating the athlete on the left for an injury. Credit: Penn State Health / Penn StateCreative Commons

As team physician for Penn State’s football and softball teams, Dr. Peter Seidenberg is used to making on-the-spot medical calls – but none quite like the life-changing decisions he made as chief medical officer at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games last March.

“It was definitely an amazing experience,” said Seidenberg, a Penn State Health family and sports medicine physician in State College, Pennsylvania, who has been lending his sports medicine expertise to Special Olympics for almost 20 years. In his latest post, he led a medical team responsible for more than half a million people, including 7,000 athletes from 194 countries, support staff, country delegations and spectators.

In addition to the typical bone and joint issues and injuries associated with Olympic games, Seidenberg helped teams with solutions for a variety of concerns and offered free health screenings to the athletes, ranging from podiatry to emotional well-being.

“Special Olympics is the true embodiment of sport,” Seidenberg said. “Nowhere else will you see an athlete trip while running a 400-meter race and other athletes stop to help her up, and then they all finish the race together. You see the true joy of the sport, and that’s refreshing.”

The chance to offer health care to such a medically underserved population is another reason for Seidenberg’s dedication.

During one screening, a female athlete from Mali had an eye exam that revealed signs of Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue and often shows up in the eyes but can also cause severe heart complications. Seidenberg swiftly ordered a cardiac evaluation that found the athlete had a critical thoracic aortic aneurysm. He arranged for immediate, lifesaving open heart surgery.

“Without that surgery, she would have died before she left the country, or shortly thereafter,” Seidenberg said. “This is why you go into medicine – to help people, and this is a prime example of why I’m involved with Special Olympics. So many conditions go undiagnosed, and simple interventions can make a huge difference in these athletes’ lives.”

Another athlete from Senegal who hadn’t heard the voices of his friends or family in years visited the Special Olympics’ audiology station and received free hearing aids that left him sobbing with joy and gratitude.

Photos illustrating some of Seidenberg's experiences during the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, are available here

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Last Updated June 12, 2019