Donuts, dentistry, and a secret hamster: A talk with new AAHA Board director Lynn Happel, DVM

Growing up in Michigan, Lynn Happel, DVM, started planning her veterinary career at age seven. Now a practice owner with a passion for dentistry, she joins the 2022–2023 AAHA Board of Directors and talks to NEWStat about teamwork, mentorship, and practice cultures that create better humans..

By Cara Hopkins

Lynn Happel, DVM, grew up in Michigan, where her love of animals was sparked early. By age seven, she’d already decided she wanted to be a veterinarian, and she more than once brought a secret animal into the house as a kid, including a baby squirrel and hamster she bought with her own money and kept hidden in a cage in her bedroom. Her connection to animals only deepened through her teens when she began riding, showing, and caring for horses.  

After graduating from the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2003, Happel worked at a couple practices before opening her own Eastown Veterinary Clinic in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2011.  

Encouraged to apply for the AAHA Board of Directors by several past board members, Happel joins the board in 2022 as a director. She’s excited for the role and hopes to spread the value of AAHA accreditation not just nationwide, but worldwide because, she said: “it’s simply how veterinary medicine should be practiced.” 

Her personal passion is dentistry, so Happel has done hundreds of hours of additional training to learn why dental health is so important and how to perform specialized procedures. When asked why she was drawn to it, she said it’s both the satisfaction of the work, and—believe it or not—the artistry involved.  

It’s silly things—like, after extractions, you need to contour the bone so there’s no sharp edges before you close the gum tissue,” she said. “Something as simple as that makes me happy.” 

Read on for more from Dr. Happel about the creative side of dentistry, mentoring the next generation of veterinary—and nonveterinary—professionals at her practice, and how that secret hamster helped put her on the path to vet med. 

NEWStat: When did you know you wanted to be a veterinarian? 

LH: I was seven and I have always loved horses, so I got into taking riding lessons. Animals always gave me happiness and a degree of peace, so I felt it was a career where I could be around animals and, by keeping them healthy, I could give other pet owners that same experience that I had. 

 

NEWStat: Who was the first animal that you ever loved? 

LH: My cat, Tigger. Tigger was really my only pet, but I did other things, like … I snuck a hamster into my room. This was back when we had pet stores at the mall. I used my own money, rode my bike to the mall and purchased the cage and the bedding and the food and everything. Then I rode my bike home and snuck the cage into my room, in a cabinet or something. So, I had a hidden hamster for a while until my mom found out and I had to get rid of it. I also had a very short stint with a baby squirrel that I found. 

 

NEWStat: Dentistry is your passion. What is the biggest challenge facing veterinary dentistry right now? 

LH: The anesthesia-free dentistry movement is definitely a challenge. It impacts, or goes against, the safety and thoroughness that we get with general anesthesia …  the challenge is really on the client perception of value and also from a regulatory perspective. … AAHA has adopted the same position as the American Veterinary Dental College that anesthesia-free dentistry is not acceptable, at best, and it’s dangerous, at worst. The care is inadequate for the dental health of the patient. 

 

NEWStat: How did you first hear about AAHA? 

LH: The second practice I worked at after graduating from veterinary school was AAHA accredited … and the quality of medicine that I was able to practice there was so much closer to what I learned in veterinary school … it gave value to the education that I’d just paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for because I actually could practice how I was taught, and I didn’t have to make significant ethical compromises. … Accreditation is not just a thing that we do and then we throw out the book out. Accreditation is a way of life; it’s a way of practice. 

For us, here in our practice, our accreditation is kind of like a checkbox. We don’t do anything differently [for an AAHA evaluation], other than share the forms, and the procedures, and the things that we already do, with the practice consultant. Again, it’s the alignment with the quality of medicine at an AAHA-accredited practice that is much closer to what I learned in school. … AAHA really means a standard of excellence in veterinary care, but “excellence” might even be strong—to me, it’s simply how veterinary medicine should be practiced.  

 

NEWStat: Who could AAHA be 10 years from now if everything goes the way that the AAHA Board wants it to go?  

LH: Truly, I think, widespread accreditation and elevation of veterinary medicine across the United States and Canada—and even around the world … I know we just accredited our first practice in Tokyo, Japan. [AAHA will be able] to bring this to practitioners so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel … we can provide a collaborative, yet guided, way to elevate the practice of small animal veterinary medicine. 

 

NEWStat: At AAHA, we’re calling 2023 “the year of the team.” What was the first or best team you’ve been on? 

LH: I would say my horse training barn was my first and best team, the group of people that I showed horses with. I was 12 when I got my horse, so that was maybe eighth grade. In a very awkward age of life, I was able to learn fantastic life skills through the hard work that comes with riding, showing, and caring for horses.  

 

NEWStat: How does that apply to what makes a successful veterinary team?  

LH: It takes clear communication about expectations, needs, and wants—as well as specific appreciation for what each person is doing well. I read a book called 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace—it talks quite a bit about how, just because someone is doing their job well, doesn’t mean they don’t need to be appreciated. … There are five different ways that people like to be praised. Verbal praise and acts of service are the two most common throughout society … We really want to be appreciated and we don’t always get that from our clients. Sometimes we do, and it’s great. … A lot of times we don’t … so for whatever the problem is that we’re solving and the emotions surrounding it, when we can give appreciation to one another on the team, that really builds value that “I’m doing a good job and my team appreciates me.” 

 

NEWStat: What is your favorite team celebration food? 

LH: That’s easy. Just go pick up some donuts for the team.  

NEWStat: Do you like the weird flavors of donuts? 

LH: No, a Bavarian cream Long John. 

 

NEWStat: Who is your professional hero? 

LH: Can I say my vet med hero is Pam Nichols? She’s my hero because of her pure passion for the profession and her strong visionary personality—and I think a lot of people would agree.  

[Editor’s note: Learn more about AAHA past president Pam Nichols, DVM, CCRP, CFI, in this episode of Central Line: The AAHA Podcast.] 

  

NEWStat:  Do you have any heroes in the veterinary dental world? 

LH: My mentor, Larry Baker, is a board-certified dentist … and he was always willing to pick up the phone whenever I had a case question. 

NEWStat:  Why were you drawn to dentistry? 

LH: I can take something that is painful, infected, and gross, and fix it in one sitting. I get immediate gratification and the patient gets relief. …  Repeatedly, time after time, people tell me: “I didn’t realize how much pain they were in because now they’re playing with toys; now they’re interacting more with the family. Gosh, you know, I really wish I would have done this sooner.”  

It’s self-perpetuating because I get the visual, immediate, surgical response, and then I get very positive client feedback again and again. I really know that I’m making a difference in that patient’s life. There’s also a fair amount of creativity in dentistry that we don’t always get in science-based professions. There’s a little bit of art to it, which I enjoy as well. It’s silly things—like, after extractions, you need to contour the bone so there’s no sharp edges before you close the gum tissue. Something as simple as that makes me happy.  

 

NEWStat: What has been one of the scariest moments or a time when you had to really be brave in your career? 

LH: Opening my own practice from scratch just over 10 years ago. 

NEWStat: Would you do it over again? 

LH: That’s a really good question. I think my personality is such that I’m not certain I would have it any other way. Honestly, practice ownership has taught me so many things I wouldn’t have learned otherwise—a lot about leadership and communication. I didn’t obtain a business degree in college, so things like spreadsheets, QuickBooks, taxes, legal issues—all the things you have to consider being a practice owner. 

 

NEWStat: Was there a moment when you knew it was all worth it? 

LH: There’s been a couple. One was when we gave an employee satisfaction survey to our staff. … and in dissecting the answers of “What’s working and what’s not?” [we found that] the things that are keeping people engaged are some of the management practices that we’ve put in place. That made me happy. 

The other thing is, you know, as a practice owner, not all your employees will be with you forever. Typically, the credentialed technicians and the veterinarians, we’ve gone to school, gotten a degree, so we’re committed to the profession. But my philosophy has changed a bit over the years to: What can I offer as a business and practice owner that will help my employees be better humans? Whether it’s a training, whether it’s culture, whether it’s continuing education … One of my CSRs who is leaving for an HR position in the human medical field because that’s what his degree is in… he shared that this is the best job that he’s ever had—because he feels he had a voice, and he was able to fail without negative repercussions.  

If I can give my 20-year-olds who don’t have a whole lot of life experience the opportunities for healthy communication, and encouragement to brainstorm ideas, think for themselves, come up with solutions, and implement them—then that’s great. That is fantastic if they can take those skills to their next place in life—or to their next place of employment—or maybe it improves something at home. It’s a win.  

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