Sometimes, mentoring opportunities are found where they are least expected. “You stumble upon them through your
everyday life and work,” says Heidi Pham-Murphy, OD. Dr. Pham-Murphy, who owns Visions Optometry
in Sacramento, California, became the clinic director of Special Olympics in Northern California a few years ago.
Northern California Special
Olympics had not had a clinic
director to head the Opening
Eyes Program for 10 years before
Dr. Pham-Murphy stepped up.
When Dr. Pham-Murphy was
contacted about the role, she
and a niece—Chelsy Pham, also in the
optical industry—traveled to Villanova
University for a train-the-trainers event.
“We reviewed the concept and mission
of Special Olympics and participated in a
clinic there to see how it was set up and
run,” she says. That was in 2016, and by
the following spring, she was setting up
her clinic for the Spring Games in 2017.
“The first clinic was a nice, controlled
environment in a gym. The second event
was on the sidelines of a soccer field, where
gusts of wind rocked the pop-up tents that
served as screening stations. As chaotic as it
was, everyone had a great experience, and they all said it was a most rewarding event.”
To gather help, Dr. Pham-Murphy
contacts volunteers in the area. She visits
high schools and the preoptometry club at
University of California, Davis; California
State University, Sacramento; and University
of California, Berkeley, School of Optometry
(UCB). “At our first annual health fair
for Special Olympics in Oakland, 28 UCB
students came; they did such a terrific job
in the clinic,” she says.
After she put in requests to various
organizations and vendors for help, she was
confident the stars would align. “I’d come
home to find 30 boxes at my door. Special
Olympics has equipment it will send to me,
and then when the event is over, we box it
up and the remaining donated equipment
will travel to another event. We load up all our supplies in a U-Haul, along with boxes
of frames and lenses I have in my garage, and
we set up our clinic a couple hours before
the event. We pool industry partners, such as
VSP Global® Eyes of Hope Mobile Eye Care
Clinics, to get all the supplies we
Experience, not efficiency
The efficiency of private
practice is not typically the
rule of the day for these events.
“Efficiency is not the emphasis.
We’re doing it for the experience.
I want to make sure that each
athlete, coach, family member
and volunteer has valuable
interactions that increase understanding
and inclusion of people living with different
intellectual abilities,” she says.
Creating that level of understanding is
“key to success in my practices and life,”
she adds. Dr. Pham-Murphy encourages
her staff to come to these events—and most
do. “Everyone gains communications skills
that are important, whether they stay in my
office long-term or are training for another
career. I encourage them to look and listen
beyond what the other person is saying so
that they begin to understand what that
The comfort zone
Special Olympics athletes provide
feedback in a big way, as well as help build
skills relevant to daily practice. “I tell my
students, technicians and scribes that when
they’re in my office they should learn to listen,
be empathetic and validate the person
they’re talking to. They have the ability to
impact someone’s life this way.”
For many first-time volunteers, working
with people living with intellectual
disabilities is outside their comfort zone. “I
encourage them to reflect on the mission.
This event is about more than providing
eyewear,” she says. She encourages the
optometry school volunteers to embrace a
different kind of learning. “What you learn
about how to communicate here is going to
help you in your career.”
Making time to mentor
Just as she does on the sidelines at Special
Olympics events, she coaches her own staff on
similar communication and teamwork skills.
As a VSP Global® Premier Program practice,
Dr. Pham-Murphy says that her practice has
become extremely busy. “I see patients every
15 minutes, but before and after they see me,
they also have excellent interactions with
members of our team. I’ve had patients who
sit down in my chair and, before I start, tell me
this is the best exam they’ve ever had.
“Encouraging staff members to be their
best is its own reward,” she says. “I have one
scribe who has been with me for years. She
saw that the forms for Special Olympics use
tiny font, so she redid the form. She’s done
the same with my medical history form.
When you tell people what they’re doing is
more than a ‘job,’ they’ll put more thought
and effort into it.”
She’s also brought family into her activities.
“I want to encourage a lifetime of service and
gratitude. My husband—Thomas Murphy,
OD—and our three little children come to these
events. It’s a busy time, but it’s also a time for
socialization, interaction and accomplishment.”
People’s actions, work ethics, kindness
and words impact the lives of those around
them. Many of Dr. Pham-Murphy’s mentees
have moved on to optometry school or
other medical careers. Others continue to be
amazing teammates in her practice, learning,
evolving and reaching new heights.