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Cindy Hecker, CEO of UW Medical Center, is celebrating a career milestone: 40 years at UW Medicine. Starting as a hospital assistant at Harborview Medical Center during nursing school, Hecker has since worked at UW Medicine in many different capacities from front-line to administration.

Open to opportunities

After completing nursing school at UW, Hecker was hired on to the same surgical care unit at Harborview that she worked on as a hospital assistant.

Hecker moved around from acute care to ICU units, trying out different specialties.

“I loved trauma and the teaching environment,” says Hecker. “I also wanted to become clinically versatile and familiar with multiple areas of the hospital.”

From assistant nurse manager and then manager in the post-anesthesia care unit to assistant administrator and chief nursing officer, Hecker kept looking for opportunities to learn and grow.

“I believe having the vast clinical background helped in many of my leadership positions, including CEO,” says Hecker. “It’s important in recognizing the clinical challenges and opportunities, it helps in making decisions, in understanding the community and what it takes to deliver clinical care.”

From Harborview, Hecker went to Northwest Hospital and Medical Center in 2012 as the executive director with a vision of integrating the campus into the UW Medicine system. Practiced at identifying opportunity, she recognized Northwest Hospital as a “wonderful asset that could offer a huge advantage to UW Medicine as a campus and that could provide growth opportunities long into the future.”

Cheers and challenges

Looking back, some of Hecker’s favorite moments were working directly with patients.

Hecker working with a patient

Hecker working in the Neurocritical Care Unit at Harborview Medical Center circa 1988.

“My time in clinical care are some of my most memorable moments. I still remember many of the patients I took care of,” says Hecker.

But her most proud, and most recent, accomplishment before the pandemic was the successful integration of Northwest Hospital with UW Medical Center into one hospital with two campuses.

“It was a complex and challenging integration, but it set the stage for the success of both campuses, providing tremendous opportunity for UW Medical Center,” says Hecker.

The integration was completed at the end of 2019. Hecker had little time to celebrate the accomplishment — and her role as CEO over the now two-campus UW Medical Center — as the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in Washington state just two months after the integration.

Of her 40 years of working in healthcare, Hecker says 2020 has been her most challenging both professionally and personally.

“The pandemic has challenged all of us but it has also highlighted what incredible and amazing leaders, staff and physicians we have throughout UW Medical Center and all of UW Medicine,” says Hecker.

It’s been long hours and lots of worry and frustration, but she says she has an incredible amount of pride in how UW Medicine and UW Medical Center have responded to the pandemic: taking care of each other and our patients.

Her top priorities this year have been work and trying to keep up as much of a normal family life as possible.

“I have four grandchildren and I have been able to keep them in my bubble,” says Hecker. “They are my escape, and they keep me balanced.”

Becoming a leader

When she thinks of her early years of leadership, she is grateful for her mentor Johnese Spisso, former Chief Health System Officer for UW Medicine.

“During the most influential times of my career she was my boss and the leader I looked up to,” says Hecker.

For Hecker, one of the great things about UW Medicine is all the people she has been able to learn from.

“There are so many people to learn from here, all with different styles of leadership, but what they have in common is a consistent and shared desire to deliver high quality care and service to all,” says Hecker.

It’s been her mentors, colleagues and the support of her husband and family that have helped her grow into the leader she is today.

Top advice from a 40-year career

“When opportunities arise, don’t be too afraid to take them,” says Hecker.

She’s tried to talk herself out of new opportunities many times, thinking, “I have little kids,” or “the timing’s not right.” Instead, she took the leap and has been able to learn and challenge herself in many different clinical and administration environments over the years.

“I am honored and privileged to have spent my entire career at UW Medicine and thankful for every opportunity it’s provided,” says Hecker. “And for all the wonderful people that I have been able to work with and learn from.”