Kaiser Permanente Ophthalmologist Finds Inspiration in the Long Run

How one Kaiser Permanente doctor’s adventure as a marathon guide for the blind transformed his practice — and his life.

Feature Story
Four runners of the Boston Marathon pose for picture at the finish wearing medals. One of the runners is blind and the others helped him to run the race as guides.
Team with a Vision runners at the 2016 Boston Marathon. Left to right: Brian Bill, Christopher Lancaster, Thomas Panek, Vincent Hau, MD

Until recently, Vincent S. Hau, MD, PhD, thought of running as an escape. The ophthalmologist with Kaiser Permanente’s Riverside Medical Center in Southern California, always had found his solo runs through quiet park trails provided an almost meditative experience.

“I would try to run in places where I wouldn’t likely encounter people,” said Dr. Hau. “I wanted to reach places cars and bikes can’t get to. I enjoyed the combination of nature and solitude.”

That began changing in 2014 at the Boston Marathon. Warming up for the race, Dr. Hau saw something that almost stopped him in his tracks.

Two men running the Boston Marathon while crowds look on. The one on the left, who is blind, is being guided by a short special rope by the runner right next to him.

Blind runner Thomas Panek runs next to Dr. Hau during the Boston Marathon. Dr. Hau guides Panek through the race via a yellow tether they both wear on their wrists.

“I noticed a fellow race participant who was tethered to another man — a runner who was blind.”

The man expertly guided the visually impaired runner through the race course — navigating everything from potholes to railroad tracks, speed bumps to slow runners — for 26.2 miles all the way to the finish line.

After finishing the 2014 Boston Marathon with a personal best time, Dr. Hau should have been celebrating, but he couldn’t stop thinking about what he saw that day.

“The thought of qualifying for one of the most prestigious marathons out there and then essentially giving up the race in order to help someone else fulfill their dream — that blew me away.”

He scoured the Internet for more information. At the top of his search results? An organization called Team With a Vision.

Parallel paths: science and running

close up of a blind runner and the guide runner connected to a tether

The tether is tied to the guide’s wrist and includes a loop for the blind runner to hold.

Get Involved

Read about Francis David, a Boston Marathon runner from Oakland, Calif. also serving as sighted guide.

Interested in guiding a visually impaired runner at any level or distance? Sign up at United in Stride »

Learn more about Team With a Vision, part of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Dr. Hau has been a vitreoretinal specialist at Kaiser Permanente for three years. His interest in medicine, science and research reaches back to his childhood. A dream high school job in a medical research lab continued into his college years, followed by medical school and clinical research in ophthalmology.

Dr. Hau’s passion for running began young, too — starting in middle school and evolving into a place on his high school’s track and cross country teams. He was even recruited to run for a college, but he chose instead to focus on academics and his lab job.

It was while he was in medical school that he got back into running.

In 2001, he reached his goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon — but his med school rotation meant he had to pass.

“It was the right choice at the time. But runners dream all their lives of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. To make the cut and not be able to race — that was tough.”

Dr. Hau threw himself into his studies and work. Joining Kaiser Permanente Riverside in 2013, he appreciated how it allowed him to focus on delivering the best clinical care to his patients.

“Plus, the organization really does support wellness. It made sense that once I joined Kaiser Permanente, I returned to training.”

Running for more than himself

After Dr. Hau qualified for the Boston Marathon a third time in 2015, and still inspired by the guide he observed the year before, he reached out to Team With a Vision to see if he could help out. It turns out the excitement among visually impaired runners for having a guide who is also a vitreoretinal surgeon is roughly the equivalent of how most teenagers react to Beyonce or Taylor Swift.

He partnered with Richard Hunter, a blind athlete, and Dan Streetman, his official guide. Dr. Hau acted as “runner,” grabbing refreshments from aid stations along the route, which allowed Hunter and Streetman to keep moving and stay focused on the race. He also helped by running ahead of the twosome to cut a path so they could advance without obstacles.

Three runners wearing pink and red at the finishline. They are laughing and overcome with joy.

Left to right: Vincent Hau, MD, blind runner Sarah Dever and guide Olivia Bair at the 2016 Big Sur Marathon finish line.

“Where it was once a purely solitary activity, running was suddenly much bigger — shifting the focus to others, and working as a team,” said Dr. Hau. “Running that marathon with Richard and Dan opened up a whole other world.”

He was hooked.

Earlier this year, Dr. Hau helped Jason Romero, who is blind, kick off his ambitious goal of being the first blind runner to run across the United States from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast. He guided Romero during the first two days of his cross-country trek.

At the Boston to Big Sur Challenge (two marathons on both coasts, held six days apart) on April 24, 2016, Dr. Hau served as a guide to Sarah Dever, the first visually impaired runner to complete the race.

And at the 2016 Boston Marathon held April 18, Dr. Hau served as guide to Thomas Panek who is CEO for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an internationally accredited nonprofit that provides guide dogs to people with vision loss, as well as service dogs to children with autism. When asked about the most memorable moment, Dr. Hau doesn’t hesitate.

A hug filled with joy at completing the Boston Marathon

Blind runner Thomas Panek (left) hugs Vincent Hau, MD, at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

“It was when we finally crossed the finish line with our arms up — and then a big hug from Thomas — in front of all the international journalists and photographers,” said Dr. Hau, “and knowing in that moment that at the world’s most prestigious marathon we were showing the world what visually impaired runners like Thomas Panek are able to do.”

Connecting with patients in a whole new way

The work he is doing as a marathon guide for the blind is also transforming his medical practice.

“Most patients only see their physicians in clinical settings. It can be a powerful thing to meet our patients where they are,” said Dr. Hau. “When we share in our patients’ life experiences — not just as a doctor, but as a colleague with something in common, as a running buddy — the doctor-patient relationship gains a new dimension rewarding both sides.”

It’s clear Dr. Hau is in this not just for each runner he helps, but also for how the experience ripples out to others in meaningful ways.

“Every time I participate in events like this I get to meet more amazing individuals,” said Dr. Hau. “I learn about their stories and then take them back to Kaiser Permanente. I share them with colleagues and patients. It inspires them. It gives them hope.”