YKHC’s Medical Director Dr. Joseph Klejka says “sliding doors” led him to a medical career.
He started out in college pursuing a degree in electrical engineering. When a part-time job as a restaurant cook wouldn’t let him have a weekend off for a Christian Youth Group retreat, he quit and took the next thing that came along: Hospital Orderly. That led him into the medical profession while the Christian Youth retreat led him to his future wife Jackie, who was also attending the camp.
This was in Ohio, 20-some years ago. Klejka grew up in Cleveland, Jackie in Canton. Most of their relatives are still there. Joe is one of five siblings, and the large family tradition continues with the Klejkas in Bethel. When Joe and Jackie moved here in 1992, there were just two children, Jessica and Jennifer. Now there are seven! The others: Jeremiah, Jesse, Joshua, Joan, and Jordan.
Dr. Klejka earned his medical degree at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine. After coming to Bethel it wasn’t long before the bush way of life took hold in the form of dog mushing. This came about in 1993 as a result of inheriting three dogs from a dentist who was leaving town. Once labeled “dog owner and musher,” his kennel began to grow. The Hoeldt family gave more pups to the Klejkas when one of their dogs had puppies. Then it was Myron Angstman and his Old Friendly Dog Farm that helped round out the lot by promising Joe two dogs short of a full litter if the Klejka’s would harness-train the pups upon birth. It was a 12-dog litter and the Klejka kennel grew some more.
Raising dogs as well as children, Jackie has for years been an assistant for itinerant veterinarian Dr. Bob Sept—indispensible in a dog-mushing town without a full-time vet.
The Klejkas now have many dogs. Two thirds of them spend their summers on Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, away from dust and mosquitoes! Joe said that by the time his kennel grew as large as it did, he was very fortunate that his oldest daughter, Jessica, took an interest. She ran the Junior Iditarod and Bogus Creek 150 sled dog races in her early teens.
Lately, another passion has surfaced. Klejka has served three and a half years on the Bethel city council, two and a half of those as Mayor. When asked about this passion for civic engagement, which includes serving on the parish council for his church and leadership at YKHC as well as local politics, he said, “The passion came from Bethel. Nowhere else on the earth do such incredible opportunities come about as a result of our unique geographic placement—the cultural richness, and opportunities to truly engage on a local level, to even visiting Secretaries of State from our Nation’s capital. It came from Bethel. If I lived in Ohio, it wouldn’t be the same. We meet incredible people who come here, come to Bethel.”
And of the milestones that have occurred for YKHC in these past 20 years?
“The Subregional clinics have been huge, it was such a stepping stone, the model. “It’s hard to believe that we are finally going to have a skilled nursing facility, too.”. That’s another homerun that folks have been asking for, for decades.”
“I think another big accomplishment, which I’m pleased to see, is that there are doctors staying here in Bethel a lot longer—it’s really nice that they’ve been able and willing to stay. They have become members of the community.”
As Medical Director of the health corporation, Klejka monitors regional health statistics, oversees the various scientific medical studies that are going on, and helps set policies. And, of course, he takes care of individual patients like all the other providers in our system. What does the big picture of the health status of the people look like to Dr. Klejka?
“People are much more aware about their diet nowadays. It doesn’t mean they are changing their diet, but the message is clear that the traditional diet is much healthier and I know people know this. All across America, people are not embracing the exercise aspect as a preventative health measure. It would be really neat if more people, not just in our region, but everywhere, were more motivated or concerned in engaging in daily physical activity to help thwart or fend off any long-term side effects that coincide with being overweight to help assist our efforts in improving our overall health.”