“It’s a fantastic eclectic mix of people from all backgrounds and professions”

Aston University Professor, Leon Davies, told OT  about his experience as a volunteer and eye clinic lead at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

Aston University
On the evening of 8 August, a display of fireworks closed the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, marking the end to a packed 11 days of sports.

The 22nd Commonwealth Games saw 72 teams taking part, made up of 54 countries and 18 territories, with more than 5000 athletes competing in 280 events across 19 sports.

Throughout the Games, volunteers gave up their time to support the athletes and their teams. Polyclinics, presented by sponsor Canon Medical Systems, were established to provide health care to those in need.

Aston University loaned ophthalmic equipment needed to furnish the Canon Medical polyclinics, with members of the School of Optometry also volunteering to provide eye care for the athletes and wider Games community.

OT asked Leon Davies, professor of optometry and physiological optics at Aston University, and who led the eye clinics, about the process of establishing the clinics and his reflections from the event.

How did Aston University’s School of Optometry become involved in the Commonwealth Games? What role did you take on?

Dr Pam Venning, head of medical services for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, has been a central pillar of the provision of the health care services for many multi-sport games, including the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games.

When the Games came to Birmingham, she contacted me because at that time, in September 2020, I was head of the School of Optometry and she asked whether I would support the formulation of the eye clinic, and whether Aston would be able to provide ophthalmic equipment. I said yes to both.

What role did you take on?

13,000 volunteers

were selected to support the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

I was a volunteer and the eye clinic lead. When the Organising Committee needed to know how an eye clinic runs, what equipment is required, what ophthalmic drugs might be required, and anything that is involved with the running of an eye clinic, I could be there to help. In a similar way, there were leads for the other disciplines such as dentistry, pharmacy, and physiotherapy. One of my roles has been to ensure that we, as a university, can provide the equipment for an eye clinic such as slit lamps, tonometers, dispensing equipment and other technology you would expect in a clinic. Then also to ensure that we’ve got the right support that surrounds that, within the context of the games.

Aston University loaned equipment for the eye health polyclinics, presented by Canon Medical. What did the process of setting up the clinics involve?

The whole process of preparation has taken two years. Ahead of the games, our technical team at Aston, led by senior technician Kim Woolley, organised the logistical job of bubble wrapping all our instruments for transport so they would be safe and operational when they arrived on site. Kim and our technical team did a sterling job. We had two collections, working with security and liaising with Connor Smith, procurement material planning, asset management and dissolution manager at the games, to make sure that the collections could take place. Topcon also supported us by providing optical coherence tomographers for the duration of the Games.

There were three sites for the polyclinics, presented by Canon Medical, including two marquees at the University of Birmingham and University of Warwick, and the NEC Hotels Athletes Villages, a prefabricated set-up.

I visited each of the three sites to set those clinics up. The University of Birmingham clinic opened on Friday 22 July, and other colleagues were there as volunteers to start seeing patients, and then the NEC and Warwick sites started seeing patients that weekend.

At that point, athletes and team officials were just beginning to arrive because the games hadn’t started, but we still had really busy days seeing patients non-stop. On one day, I saw the first patient at 7am in the morning, and we probably saw another 14 or 15 patients, through to 3pm. The volunteers did a 7am–3pm or a 3pm–11pm shift. So it’s a big ask.

What did it feel like to be part of the polyclinics, working alongside other specialisms?

It has been fantastic. There were GPs, physiotherapists, and radiographers because there was an MRI on campus put in place by Canon Medical Systems.

But it’s not just people who are clearly identified as being clinicians; optometrists, dispensing opticians, GPs, physios, etc. I was sitting on the reception desk with one volunteer and talking with her about what she does in her day job and she was an ophthalmologist, volunteering as a receptionist. I had a chat with a gentleman who was volunteering as a driver and asked what he does in his day job, and he said: “Well until very recently I was a professor of paediatric oncology.” I was also in a medical car with a solicitor who had volunteered to be a driver.

It’s a fantastic eclectic mix of people from all backgrounds and professions, all walks of life and from all over the UK who have made a really big commitment in all coming together for the good of these games and the athletes within them.

What was the response from athletes and the wider Games community?

We saw a mix of athletes and non-athletes, which included anyone from a chef de mission (the lead of each national team), to the coach. Individuals participate in the games from 72 Commonwealth nations, with some coming from backgrounds where access to healthcare is limited or non-existent. You really are able to help and support these people in a way that you don’t often experience in the UK.

I’ve examined medics who, in their country, have no real access to eye care because there may be only one ophthalmologist and no optometrists in the whole of the country. It makes you realise how lucky we are to be able to do this job and support people who need it.

In terms of disease and pathology, in the first few days we saw some dry eye cases, as we anticipated, because a lot of people were arriving after long journeys, from African countries, from India, Canada, New Zealand, Fiji. These are long plane flights and meant they were spending a lot of time in an air conditioned environment.

The interactions have all been really positive and that has been really pleasing. We’ve seen athletes who you would expect to be able to see well, but who don’t have spectacles and need them. Within 24 hours, we can provide the athletes with a pair, because of the people who have been supporting us to do that.

Leon holding supplies
Optical suppliers collaborated to provide spectacles for athletes requiring them

Can you tell us about the supply of spectacles for athletes participating in the Games and what this cross-sector support means?

I reached out to Andy Hepworth, professional relations manager for Essilor, who is such a positive facilitator. He put me in contact with Stefan Danaher, site manager at BBGR Optical UK, and then Emily Andrews, product director at Eyespace Eyewear. These three groups all came together and said they could help. We explained that we needed a quick turnaround because the athletes weren’t in Birmingham for long. Many athletes might only be at the games for a few days to take part in their event and then they would go. The games were paying for the glazing, the lenses and the frames for the athletes.

Essentially, we were doing all of this out of a marquee. There’s no fixed address. Sometimes we would be driving the frames down to the polyclinics, where we would contact the athletes to come and collect them. It was quite labour intensive but when everyone points in the same direction and pulls together, it’s amazing what you can achieve. I really do thank those people because they all pulled together for what is no mean feat.

Around 150

pairs of spectacles were dispensed throughout the Games

What made you want to volunteer personally?

Aston University is very passionate about our civic responsibility and engagement with the community, be that local, national or international. How better to express that civic responsibility as an optometrist than to work in an eye clinic in Birmingham for an international event such as the Commonwealth Games? You can’t say anything, but yes. It all aligns.

What are your highlights?

The first highlight was just getting it up and running. We were a clinic on a grassy knoll and the doors of the polyclinic faced out to the University of Birmingham’s lake. It’s a beautiful, idyllic spot. But to think that the whole thing was set up within a few days, functioning and serving people, not only in terms of their eye care, but their holistic health as well. That’s a remarkable feat. It’s something that I’m very proud of and I think the university is very proud to be an integral part of it by loaning the equipment.