Dr. Hiro Iwamoto- Profiles in Diversity

Owner, Briarlake Animal Hospital
GVMA Board of Directors, District 4

Dr. Hiro is an Atlanta native who started out as a software engineer. After completing his veterinary degree at UGA CVM. He practiced in the Decatur area for over a decade befor e establishing Briarlake Animal Hospital to better serve friends, family, and community. Dr. Hiro lives with his wife, Dr. Hochel, and two wonderful kids. He loves spending time at the kids events and hanging out with friends and family. In other spare time he restores decrepit old cars and banjos.

When you were growing up did you encounter any Asian veterinarians?
Growing up in Atlanta in the 80’s I did not know of any Asian veterinarians. As one of only a few Asians in elementary and high school I was always told I should do something in math or engineering. My teachers and counselors never really gave me any other options and consequently I ended up at Georgia Tech for my first year of college. It was there that I started thinking there may be other options for me. I ended up giving up on engineering and graduated from Davidson College where I learned that I was more suited to a profession more engaged with human interaction. I don’t want to promote any Asian “tiger mom” stereotypes but in my family it was more expected I go into human medicine. Three (of my four) sisters work in human medicine and when I finished vet school my mother even asked if I was now planning on going to med school!

Was your class in vet school a diverse group?
I was the only Asian in my class and as far as I recall I was the only Asian male in all four classes when I started. There were two African Americans and one Latinx in my class. Following my class there was one Asian male in each class and I used to joke to those students and to the administration that I worked out so well they had to keep going with it. I didn’t feel different in vet school. I had amazing classmates and great friends from all walks of life. It was where I learned that in Georgia you introduce yourself with the county you are from. As in, “Hi I’m so and so from Pickens county…”. I started introducing myself as, “I’m Hiro from DeKalb county”.

“Find a supportive and healthy workplace that allows an appropriate work life balance. Everyone’s balance is different, it is important that you determine your own – not someone else.”

What are some of the ways in which you feel that it’s more difficult to be Asian in veterinary medicine?
Hmmm, I don’t think it is more difficult, at least for me. Our practice is in a diverse intown setting and our clientele is used to diversity in every setting. Being a veterinarian
is a hard job and every colleague I talk to seems to commiserate in the experience in similar ways.

There has been an increase in Asian xenophobia and bigotry since the beginning of the pandemic. Have you or anyone else you know experienced this?
Yes, surprisingly so. There are several Asian owned businesses in the shopping center where our practice is located and we talk casually in passing. They have mentioned to me that they have had people enter their shops and say threatening things. Some have stopped coming to work alone because they did not feel safe. In the Publix of our center someone apparently walked up and down the aisles yelling that everyone had to wear masks because of the Chinese. We are able to shelter ourselves a little bit more because we keep our front door locked and have closed our waiting area during the pandemic.

What do you wish your colleagues knew about practicing medicine as a minority in white dominant profession?
I think that people in our profession are some of the most empathetic people around. I feel very lucky to be a part of the profession and to have such great colleagues and friends. There is nothing more than trying to do what most people in this profession already do. Practice the golden rule and remember that you cannot walk in another person’s shoes.

Have you had any negative experiences with clients where you were discriminated against because of your race or ethnicity?
Absolutely yes. I have been told by a client that they wouldn’t see an “Oriental”. I have been asked if I speak English even after speaking to someone. Just like in so many things in life you just have to “scroll through” the BS and focus on the positive. For every bad client out there any veterinarian can simply think about the hundreds or thousands of clients who trust and adore them.

In what way do you believe the profession needs to change regarding diversity and inclusion?
It starts young. Introducing elementary and high school age children to the profession is the only way to get more diversity in the applicants for vet tech and veterinary school. Things like the GVMA’s involvement in the Georgia Ag Experience educational trailer are important ways to get more diversity in applicants.

You recently started your own practice. Do you know any other Asian practice owners?
I do not know any Asian owned practices but I had many great mentors who helped me along the way. As I mentioned before, veterinarians as a group tend to be empathetic and sharing. So many practice owners were happy to share experiences (good and bad!) that were incredibly helpful in getting my practice off the ground.

Has being a father impacted your career trajectory?
Parenting is no joke! That being said, fatherhood was always a more important goal than any professional goal I have ever had. I could certainly see more appointments and get another surgery in if I didn’t have to rush out to pick up my kids from school but there has never been a question of which I would rather do. Previously I have had employers who didn’t appreciate putting family before work. I understand that there have to be limits but now that I am an employer I try to keep that focus for both my family and my employee’s families. I personally believe that makes for a happier and more dedicated staff.

Have you had any negative experiences with colleagues where you were discriminated against because of your race/ethnicity?
In my first year out of school I was at a conference and was introduced to a respected specialist in the area. He squinted his eyes and said in a Chinese sing-song voice,
“Sooo nice to meet you” as he reached to shake my hand. The person introducing us was speechless. I told him I didn’t have the time for him and walked away. Needless to say, I have never referred anyone to him.

What challenges have you encountered with balancing being a veterinarian and a parent?
Most veterinarians hate saying NO. Before I had kids I was willing to stay late for that one more patient that “needed” to be seen. Be it an ear infection or because they forgot to get their vaccines done before they had to board their animal in the morning. I still hate to say no because I hate disappointing people but I have had to get better about saying “No, I cannot fit in one more appointment.”

What advice would you give other veterinarians, especially men, who want to have children?
Find a supportive and healthy workplace that allows an appropriate work life balance. Everyone’s balance is different, it is important that you determine your own – not someone else. Many practices and workplaces are run by a different generation and the expectations of being a father have changed over the years. It was no big deal if our dads missed a birthday or graduation, but dads now want (and are expected) to be more involved. My wife and I struggled over not being open on the weekends but the model has changed for human medicine and we are trying to help change it with veterinarians. We are lucky to have an incredible staff and a big part of that is that respecting their lives. Life is stressful enough. We need to enjoy being veterinarians while at work and being dads when we are not.

Taken from the 2021 fall edition of “The GA Vet” magazine.