Riding High: AAHA’s New President—Pam Nichols, DVM

From flying planes to riding horses to running multiple practices, she does it all. An interview with AAHA’s new president, Pam Nichols, DVM.

Interview by Ben Williams

PAM NICHOLS, DVM, IS A LONG-STANDING AAHA ADVOCATE and has been on the board of directors since 2015. This year, at the first-ever virtual Connexity in September, Nichols will take over the top spot on the AAHA board to become the 2020–2021 president. Trends sat down with her (virtually, of course) to get a sense of what makes her tick, and what she has in mind for the association’s direction over the next year.

What was your first job?

My first job ever was as a waitress. My first semi-important job was as a ski instructor, and my first career job was as a stockbroker. But I wanted to be a veterinarian from the time I was six. Owning practices, saving pets, making lifelong friends, and raising employees from kids to friends to amazing adults—that’s the best job ever!

How did you get introduced to AAHA?

One of the regional directors (David Denkers, DVM) invited me to the AAHA conference in 1999 as an up-and-coming leader. Peg Rucker, DVM, was the AAHA president that year. She was smart and beautiful and incredibly gifted and she said, “Someday we will only be able to sell what is in our hearts and in our heads, so don’t give that away.” She inspired me to start my own practice later that year, and I knew I would be AAHA accredited from the start. I have been AAHA accredited since the very beginning with my first two hospitals and never looked back!

My number-one goal is to get pet owners to search for an AAHA-accredited hospital first, and to not accept anything less than an AAHA-accredited hospital for their pets.

What issues will you focus on during your presidency?

My number-one goal is to get pet owners to search for an AAHA-accredited hospital first, and to not accept anything less than an AAHA-accredited hospital for their pets.

My second goal is for every person associated with an AAHA-accredited hospital, whether a doctor or an animal-care attendant, to have a personal and meaningful reason for being AAHA accredited. I also want them to share that reason with anyone who will listen!

My third goal is for the best of the “not-yet-accredited” hospitals to ask for our assistance. I am confident that the quality of our medicine, the profitability of accredited hospitals, and the quality of our teams will compel them and inspire them to become AAHA accredited.

What is your leadership style?

Hmmm. I think I am a coach and a cheerleader. I try to get the vision aligned, and then get out of the way. It is amazing what our teams are capable of when we set aside our egos and we are all working on a common goal.

What is the biggest problem the profession is facing now?

I do understand that there are huge problems facing our profession. Things like student debt–income ratios, lack of diversity, and the rising “cost of pet care” are real. Suicide is real, burnout is real, and at the heart of it all, we have a marvelous profession that attracts intensely caring and devoted people. We must use all the tools available to make a difference in each of our corners of the world!

That said, our profession is in amazing shape. We are still one of the most highly trusted professions. We have tools available to solve almost every problem—we know how to address mental health issues, we know how to solve burnout, we have tools to make every practice profitable. I suppose that the biggest problem I see is that we, as a profession, are relatively slow to change. So even though we might know we need to make a change, we hesitate until the pain of staying in our old ways is so overwhelming that we finally and begrudgingly do so.

How has the pandemic changed the way you think about veterinary medicine?

It has made me more aware of the whole ecosystem of society. I am far more alert to the intricate connection between the state of the economy, the general mental health of society, the mental health of our patients and clients, and the economic welfare of each of our practices.

How will the pandemic affect your role as AAHA president?

I think the biggest issue is that I won’t get to see all my AAHA peeps at Connexity! I will continue to visit hospitals that are comfortable with it, but certainly one of the most exciting things about being the president of the association is getting to know members and creating a vision for the future. I still look forward to connecting with the newest folks in our profession in whatever way we can. I still look forward to sharing my optimism and enthusiasm for the profession with anyone who will listen!

I am truly, deeply, wildly positive,
right down to my DNA.

What would you like members to know about you?

That I love languages because they give me the ability to connect with so many different people and cultures. I speak Spanish and Italian, and I study French whenever I have time!

That I am truly, deeply, wildly positive, right down to my DNA. I believe that whatever we focus on, we will get more of. I believe that there is no limit to what a team can accomplish if they have aligned values, if they are agile, if they leave their egos at the door and provide a safe space for creativity, humility, and empathy.

I also want my AAHA peeps to know how much being an AAHA member has changed my life.

You are involved in many different endeavors. Where do you get the drive to do all you do?

My mom is like the Energizer bunny; I learned from her! Also, the power of positivity. Seriously, I get energy when I see good things happen, which I do all the time! I only do the things I love. If it is not fun to me, I am pretty much not going to do it. About six years ago, I quit seeing “in-room appointments” because I dreaded doing them. Three years ago, I quit seeing cats because I am an OK cat vet but not exceptionally talented. I don’t like to do anything that I am not really good at. The moral of my story is that if you do what you love, you will want to do more of it.

You are a licensed pilot. What do you love about flying, and how do you use your piloting skills?

I love everything about flying, but mostly I love that when I meet a fellow pilot, we have an automatic connection. I love the sense of accomplishment of overcoming fear—I was afraid of heights when I started flying and I couldn’t open my eyes when I was landing! Now I am not. I used to hate technology because my plane had old steam gauges. Now my plane has intimidating avionics, but I mastered them. It helped me realize that my laparoscope is not that intimidating!

Who are your current pets?

Charlotte, the most beautiful and hardest schnauzer in the world. Penny is my sweet standard poodle; she is 12 years old. Luna is the coolest cat in the world.
Maq, Joe, Fina, and Cowboy Bob are my talented and very loving horses. They are more like dogs than horses, and are the reason I think that AAHA should somehow be able to make equine standards. I would like to know that they are being cared for at our high level of standards.

How do you spend your time when you are not working?

I love my horses and just bought a sweet little cutting horse. It’s fun to learn a new horse sport, and I find myself in West Texas frequently on horseback playing with cattle. If the weather is blue sky and beautiful, you can find me up in the air—last week, I flew to Scottsdale to watch the National Reined Cow Horse Association Derby. If there is snow in the mountains, you will find me being a mountain host at Sun Valley, and if it is just a warm, sunny day, I am frequently in or by my pool! 

Ben Williams
Ben Williams is editor of Trends magazine.


Photo credits: Photos courtesy of Pam Nichols



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