Seeking a common language of empathy with AAHA Past President Adam Hechko, DVM

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Adam Hechko, DVM, grew up on a farm just outside Columbia Station, Ohio, where, before he even turned 10 years old, he declared that he would be a veterinarian.  

“I loved following the farm vet around,” he told NEWStat. “My sister and I were in 4-H, so the vet would come out … and the thing that was most intriguing was getting to use your hands [as a vet] … and understanding the science behind the medicine.” 

Hechko followed that inspiration to the University of Findlay to complete his undergraduate degree, and then to The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. After earning his DVM, he began his own practice right away, so he had a lot of things to figure out.  

“For me, AAHA has been my guiding light for medicine,” he said. “I leaned on the guidelines and standards that AAHA had put forth to reassure the decisions that I was making by myself as a young grad. And from there it just led me to continue to strive to be the best I could be—AAHA still helps me to get to that point.” 

After his practice, North Royalton Animal Hospital, won the AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year award in 2015, Hechko was approached and asked to apply for the AAHA Board of Directors. He joined a year later in 2016 and worked his way up to board president in 2021–2022.  

“I hadn't really considered that type of leadership work outside of my practice [before joining the AAHA Board], but it was very intriguing to me to be able to give back to the profession and to the organization that I held in such high regard and esteem for the ways it helped me through my younger years of practice,” he said. 

North Royalton has grown into a seven-doctor practice with 62 team members that includes a daycare, and grooming facility, where Hechko says it’s not just the fluffy new puppies who make it all worthwhile, but the opportunity to be with families at the end of their pets’ lives as well. When asked what he’s most proud of, he said it’s his team’s efforts to respond to every situation with empathy and respect—something that they’ve worked hard to achieve with the help of a consultant who guides them toward a “common language” based in emotional intelligence.  

In his time on the AAHA Board, Hechko has been involved in much of the planning and strategizing behind the big initiatives that AAHA will be rolling out in 2023. Read on for more on how Hechko hopes AAHA continues to guide the future of veterinary medicine and supports young graduates just like he was toward the best possible culture and patient care. 

 
NEWStat: Have there been any moments throughout your years on the AAHA Board that have really stuck out for you?

AH: It has been a fantastic experience. I have learned so much personally about leadership and communication, about our industry, and the needs of our practices, veterinarians, techs, and assistants. It's a whole ecosystem that we really focus on. What I love about being behind the scenes is that we really get to look at the picture as a whole and what's best for our entire profession while not getting sidelined or sidetracked with just one path. 

 
NEWStat: What makes a successful veterinary team?  

AH: It starts with active engagement around culture. We talk a lot about culture—I certainly know that comes up a lot—but it really sets the tone. You have a culture, regardless of whether you're working on it or not. It's happening on its own, and sometimes that’s not always the greatest. Putting that emphasis on communication and respect is huge to building the care that we want to provide for our patients, as well as the resiliency that we want in our teams. 

 
NEWStat: We’re calling 2023 “The Year of the Team” at AAHA. What's your favorite team celebration food?

AH: At our practice, our team has fun with Chipotle because it's a great opportunity for varied diets. Anybody can enjoy it. You can build your own. When we have our monthly team meetings, I like to be there serving the food and getting to interact with our team. It's a way for me to have a playful interaction with them that's outside of the scope of normal practice and medicine, and just get to ask casual questions and learn a little bit about them. 

 
NEWStat:  What are the biggest challenges facing veterinary practices right now? 

AH: I think it’s the challenges that go along with staffing. Finding the right fit for your hospital and your culture, and then developing the right environment to make that a sustainable job for every team member and providing the right training to give them the tools they need to be successful. 

Currently our team works with a consultant who helps us focus on emotional intelligence and communication. This person comes into our office periodically to do workshops, and then we have little touch points throughout the year. It gives us an opportunity to have a common language when it comes to our focus on emotional intelligence, communication, respect, and care for our patients. We’ve been lucky to find a consultant who resonates with our team and helps us focus on building that great culture. 

NEWStat: What are you most proud of in your career? 
 
AH: We know veterinary medicine is full of challenges and things don't always go exactly the way that we hoped or want them to go. I think, in those moments, showing honesty and integrity to the individual or family is something that I really pride myself and our team on doing—just hitting those challenges head on and coming very clearly with a lot of empathy and a lot of understanding to work through something. 

 
NEWStat:  What are the moments that have made it all worthwhile? 

AH: Anytime you get a cute little puppy in your office who is just happy to see you—those are always great. But some of the greatest moments are when we work with families at the end of a pet’s life. I always tell my team that our whole relationship with the patient and family can be overshadowed if we don't get this most important part of life with that owner right, which is saying goodbye to their pet. That lasting memory can really affect and tarnish how they perceive their relationship with their pet or with our office.  

It’s in those moments when we say goodbye to pets, when the whole team rolls into that room to say goodbye and there's tears, and there's happiness, and there's stories—that is a celebration of a relationship that has lasted years. For me, that's the most important thing that we can do for a family: giving them comfort when it's time to say goodbye. 

 
NEWStat: What are you most excited about for AAHA’s future? 
 
AH: Many of the projects and opportunities that we're providing members right now have been in the works for many years. So it's so exciting to see all that hard work behind the scenes with the board and the team at AAHA, and all the collaboration that's been going on, to see these fantastic ideas manifest. 

The certificates program is key to that. Being able to take information that's so valued by our profession and turn it into an opportunity that is more of a curriculum for learning that's easier to apply on a day-to-day basis. Turning those guidelines into certificates is going to be huge. I have already primed my team for the certificate based on the anesthesia guidelines. The certificate for pain management is another one we’re really excited about.  

AAHA Benchmarking is another great opportunity. In the past, AAHA, for me, was always about being my road map to the best medicine and the best practice that I could provide for my patients. Benchmarking just gives us that next level of providing support because it gives us an opportunity for practices to really look at what's going on internally, where are those healthy areas of your practice, and where can you make improvements that are going to affect your patients’ care in a positive way? How can you and your team build a sustainable future? Because your community depends on that. 

 
NEWStat: If everything goes the way you would like, how will things be different in the whole field of vet med 10 years from now? 

AH: The wild, crazy dream that probably many of us have is reducing the level of burnout and having fewer people leave our profession. I don't think that's going to happen overnight. It's these little baby steps. Some of them are big splashes, but for the most part, it's all these little steps as we move forward that are going to help change that narrative and really celebrate this amazing profession that we have. 

 
NEWStat: Last question … Who was the first animal you ever loved? 

AH: It was my boxer when I was a young boy. Her name was Candy. I was probably eight, nine, 10 years old. She was a little bit of a goofy boxer. She would chase anything. So, you would toss any random object into the woods, and she would find it, and come out 10 minutes later and bring it back to you. She just loved playing fetch with anything. I’ll never forget that dog.  

Learn more about the AAHA Board of Directors in this recent interview with Garth Jordan, MBA, CSM, CSPO.   

Meet AAHA Board President Margot Vahrenwald, DVM, in this NEWStat article.  

Meet new 2022-23 AAHA Board director Lynn Happel, DVM, in this NEWStat article.  

Meet AAHA Board President-Elect Mark Thompson, DVM, MBA, CCRP, in this NEWStat article 

Meet Secretary/Treasurer Dermot Jevens, MVB, DACVS in this NEWStat article

See the current AAHA Board of Directors at aaha.org, where you can also read AAHA’s bylaws and learn more about vacancies on the board. 

NEWStat