Leading the Way

Meet Adam Hechko, DVM, AAHA’s new president, who took the reins as the veterinary industry began navigating its second pandemic year.

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Adam Hechko, DVM, AAHA’s New President

by Tony McReynolds

 
Adam Hechko, DVM, AAHA’s new president, took the reins as the veterinary industry began navigating its second pandemic year. It’s a leadership journey that started, he said, with a “really raw, candid conversation” with his practice team at North Royalton Veterinary Hospital in North Royalton, Ohio, during the first weeks of the pandemic.
 

“Everything was shut down, and they said businesses are closed but veterinary medicine is an essential business,” he said. “We were all worried and nervous and uncertain about what was going to happen. But at that time my team—and probably every team across the country—wanted to know that their leader had their back, that their leader had a plan, that their leader was not going to sit idle and was going to continue to be proactive.”

So they had a staff meeting, and Hechko was looking at his team and they were looking back at him. And he saw how worried they were.

“They’re scared,” he said. “They’re terrified. And they’re looking to me as a leader and saying, ‘I need some stability, I need some calm, I need to know that it’s going to be okay.’”

And that’s when he knew how utterly everything had changed, and what he needed to do.

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“We need to remember what our roots are, continue to celebrate our profession, and not get bogged down by the minutia of day-to-day.”

“I realized that my job was to bring my team together and say, ‘We’ve got this.’ To remind them why we’re in this industry and what we’re about. We’re about helping pets. We’re about helping family. And we’re about supporting those relationships.”

History of Helping

Hechko learned about the symbiotic relationship between people and animals growing up on his family’s farm near Cleveland, Ohio, where his parents raised hogs, goats, and steers. He vividly remembers shadowing the veterinarians who came to the farm to tend to the livestock. “I watched everything they did and offered to help with anything I could. I thought veterinary medicine was pretty cool profession.”

Hechko loved rambling around the countryside, where he often came across orphaned animals—much to his parents’ chagrin. “I’d always get in trouble for bringing them home,” he recalled ruefully. “But I couldn’t leave them. I always had to find help for them.” 

Eventually, his interests pivoted from livestock to pets. Hechko enrolled first in a pre-veterinary program at the University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio—“a fantastic program,” he said—and then at The Ohio State University (OSU) College of Veterinary Medicine.

He graduated in 2006—and promptly bought a practice.

It was an unusual move for a young veterinary grad, but it was an unusual opportunity. The practice in question—the same North Royalton Veterinary Hospital he owns today—had once belonged to his father-in-law, John Bryk, Sr, DVM, MD, who opened it in 1957. Hechko’ s future wife, Jen, had grown up in the practice and had helped her dad run the place.

After Bryk died during Hechko’ s freshman year, new owners bought the place but couldn’t make a go of it. They put it up for sale a few years later—right around the time Hechko was graduating from OSU.

To Hechko, the chance to buy back the veterinary practice his wife grew up in seemed like fate. So, at a time in their careers where most veterinarians are out landing their first jobs working for experienced vets at established practices owned by other people, Hechko found himself an inexperienced vet working at an established practice that he owned.

“I literally took over the practice at graduation,” he said.

It was a small practice with only four employees—including Hechko’ s mom and his wife Jen. “I learned a lot in a very short period of time,” Hechko said. “We go to vet school because we want to be veterinarians and practice medicine and take care of our patients. But very quickly, I learned I needed to not only do that, but I needed to be a leader.”

Leader in the Making

It took some time to determine what kind of leader he wanted to be. Mostly, Hechko said, he was learning as he went. But gradually, he found himself gravitating to what he calls “servant leadership.”

“Servant leadership is where you put the needs of your team first, and the belief that supporting your team and providing them the resources they need also helps your business,” he explained. “It helps your patients and helps everybody that you’re trying to take care of. I really like celebrating my team and providing them with the support they need to grow as professionals and as people.”

While Hechko didn’t have mentors onsite like most new veterinarians on their first job, there was an upside. “It taught me to go with my gut, to go with my instincts, and to be confident in my decisions,” he said. “AAHA was a really big part of that.”

Hechko calls AAHA “my roadmap from the very beginning.”

But ironically, North Royalton—the future 2015 AAHA Practice of the Year—was not AAHA accredited when he bought it. At 1,200 square feet, the building was too small, for one thing—and other pre-existing drawbacks meant North Royalton never would have met the standards of accreditation.

But Hechko had big plans for North Royalton—and they included AAHA.

“That was my goal from the very beginning: to be an AAHA-accredited hospital,” Hechko said. “That was the standard I wanted to set. When I was having those moments of doubt, I relied a lot on AAHA standards and position statements and guidelines to give me the confidence that what I was doing was right.”

He noted that AAHA gave him the courage to “stick with it. It helped me get where I am today. AAHA gave me the confidence that I needed to take care of my patients and to provide the best care for my patients and for the families in the community that we serve.”

The practice grew, and as it grew, Hechko built out. He gained clients. He added staff. Eventually, North Royalton relocated to a 17,000 square foot facility. And in 2009, North Royalton received its AAHA accreditation.

The growth arc continued. In 2015, the hospital was voted AAHA Practice of the Year. That same year, Hechko joined the AAHA Board of Directors.

This year, North Royalton has 7 doctors and 58 employees. And Hechko is AAHA president.

Leading with a Vision

IMG_3917.jpgAccording to Hechko, the job of AAHA president has a dual focus, just like running a practice—especially during a pandemic. “Sometimes it‘s more about being a visionary,” he said. “Looking to the future and figuring out and solving the problems and being innovative to provide care for our patients. But sometimes it’s about focusing on the here and now, to care for our team and to make sure our team is safe and secure and happy and healthy so they can provide for those patients.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Hechko said, we were all trying to figure things out and find our way. “Everybody was uncertain about what the future was going to hold.”

Then, Hechko added, it made sense to focus on the present and “on bringing our team together and celebrating what we were and what we do on a daily basis.”

“I told my team in the very beginning, when the pandemic hit, they should consider every pet an emotional support animal, and we’re here to help those pets. Because if we can help those pets stay healthy, we’re helping the families and the community that we live in, and that’s one less thing that we all have to stress about.”

Hechko says that philosophy became a kind of mantra during the pandemic: “We’re not just here to help animals be healthy. We’re also trying to help the community and part of our job with the community is taking that stress of pet health off of the family.”

IMG_3681.jpgHechko also strove to take the stress of caring for pets’ health off of his staff during the pandemic by creating special and fun moments for his team. “It wasn’t just about the patients, it was also about the people who were taking care of those patients.”

Hechko’s dual emphasis on present and future is at the forefront of his mind as he helms AAHA: “As we continue to navigate through the pandemic, I want to make sure that we continue to focus on what has made AAHA so special: our standards. Who we are and how we identify, and celebrating what veterinary medicine is about.”

Hechko is realistic about the sad realities we all face in our practices such as compassion fatigue—especially during a continued pandemic—but says veterinary medicine has built-in resiliency that helps balance that out: “We have puppies and kittens that come in the door, and we have celebrations for pets when they were hospitalized and they got better and got to go home,” he said. “We have to remember those things because those were things that we all thought about when we were going to veterinary school. I don’t want to lose focus on that.”

“We need to remember what our roots are, continue to celebrate our profession, and not get bogged down by the minutia of day-to-day. Even if we’re having a hard day, there are probably a dozen families that we’ve helped along the way in that day that we’ll probably never know about. I think that our impact with how we interact with our clients reaches far beyond what we’d probably recognize in veterinary medicine.”Even in tough times, Hechko thinks veterinary medicine is primed to survive: “I think we’re probably going to do better than a lot of industries because we have a mission. We do something that’s really cool, and it’s something the public thinks is really cool. We’ve got to remember that when we get bogged down.”

Hechko is keenly aware that he’s leading AAHA in a time of real crisis and a time of real change, both in the world and in the veterinary profession. And he admits that it’s a little daunting. His solution: “I think we need to just take a step back and take a moment to look and say, ‘What are our lessons from this pandemic?’ And there are going to be a lot of them. What can we take from this and use to improve our practice of veterinary medicine?”

For Hechko, the biggest struggles—and opportunities—during times of social distancing and curbside care can be found in trying to maintain what he values most: relationships. “Finding ways to maintain relationships with our clients when we couldn’t always be with them face to face,” is so important he noted. The bright side? “Innovation in the industry has exploded because we were forced to make changes and find ways to continue to create those moments and create those connections with our clients.”

Hechko and his wife, now a pediatric dentist, don’t live on a farm, but he still spends a lot of time in the garden and with his own animals. The family has a dog, two goats, two peacocks, and a lot of chickens. When he’s not working, Hechko also, unsurprisingly, enjoys teaching his three children—two sons ages 10 and 13, and a daughter aged 7—what he learned from his own parents: “We’re going to raise these animals, and we’re going to give them the best care and the best food and the best environment,” he said. “We do everything we can to keep them healthy and happy.” 

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Tony McReynolds is AAHA’s NEWstat editor.

 

Photo credits: Photos courtesy of Adam Hechko, DVM; Photo of Adam Hechko at Connexity 2021 courtesy of AAHA

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