The Value of Volunteering

Despite a busy practice, OD finds mentoring brings tangible and intangible rewards


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.

Dr. Pham-Murphy, at right, with her daughter Maddie in front of her, with a Special Olympics global ambassador and her parents

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 need.”

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 person needs.”

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.