Since opening Eastown Veterinary Clinic in 2011, Lynn Happel’s clientele has grown to about 5,000 patients. Photo by Jim Gebben
Unlike her classmates with New Kids on the Block posters, Lynn Happel’s bedroom when she was little was plastered with dog, cat and horse posters. That was the best she could do, since her mother wouldn’t let her have pets in the house.
In middle school, however, Happel began showing horses, which helped her get through the awkward adolescent years — and settle on her future career as a veterinarian.
“It’s not an easy time, and showing my horse was so important to my personal growth and developing confidence, skill and strength,” Happel said. “It added to the importance of being a veterinarian, to be able to take care of animals and allow other people to have the same relationship I value with animals.”
One reason Happel values relationships with animals is because they don’t get angry — or if they do, it’s short-lived. The animals are always there to love and support their owners, she said.
Her love for animals eventually led Happel to establish Eastown Veterinary Clinic at 1350 Lake Drive SE — one of Grand Rapids’ most significant women-owned businesses. She won both the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce 2015 EPIC Award for top woman-owned business, and Grand Rapids Business Journal’s 2015 Top Women-Owned Business award in the $0-$1.49 million category.
Those honors weren’t what she set out for, but she certainly appreciates the affirmation.
“When I set out, the goal was to be the best me, the best veterinarian and the best clinic I could be,” she said. “The awards are a fantastic recognition that I’m doing a good job of being the best me.”
Happel’s career in veterinary medicine almost didn’t happen. Her mother, a pharmaceutical sales representative, pushed Happel to seek a more lucrative career. To appease her, Happel shadowed various medical professionals and applied to a now-defunct program at the University of Michigan that would facilitate her entry into medical school.
She was accepted at U-M, but not to the medical program. Instead, Happel chose Michigan State University — the school she really wanted to go to all along.
“It was important to her that I have a career I could support myself in,” she said. “She doesn’t think I listen to her no matter what, but that was important to me because I’ve learned to make choices that are best for (me) and not to please everyone else.”
Happel graduated from Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine 12 years ago, but that doesn’t mean she has stopped learning about animals.
In April, she was at John Ball Zoo performing dental work on a lion named Bakari. Her work at the zoo is part of her road to becoming board-certified in veterinary dentistry. She was accepted at the American Veterinary Dental College’s Alternate Pathway Program in 2009. Once fully certified, she’ll be one of just a few veterinary dentists in Michigan.
As part of achieving certification, she must work with five exotic species. At John Ball Zoo, she already has worked with a lion, a Guinea baboon named Caitlyn, and Phoenix, a cotton-top tamarin monkey.
“Dr. Happel has assisted me with physical exams for several zoo animals,” said Dr. Ryan Colburn, John Ball Zoo veterinarian. “We are incredibly fortunate to have another doctor with her level of experience and expertise in veterinary dentistry so close to home.”
Happel is always seeking to learn more about her field, even though Michigan is one of only a few states without a continuing education requirement in the field — although she said the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association is attempting to change the continuing education requirements.
She said there are some veterinarians who haven’t continued to learn about new medical treatments since they graduated from veterinary school. That’s a scary thought, she said, considering how much the field has changed just since she graduated.
For example, she said, when she graduated, it was standard procedure to hit animals who were in shock with a load of steroids. Since then, it has been discovered that steroids are not beneficial and instead it’s most important to keep IV fluids running. Happel also mentioned how feline medicine has changed drastically, since in the past, there wasn’t much of a focus on caring for cats.
“If I don’t keep up, it’s doing a disservice to my patients,” she said.
She said dentistry, in particular, is becoming increasingly important to animal medicine, just as in human medicine.
“Dentistry is instant gratification. You can take a horrible-looking, painful mouth and fix it in an episode. A lot of internal medicine is weeks of ‘try this and see what happens,’ and months of ‘do this.’
“I guess I’m part of that generation that likes instant gratification.”
The gratification of running a successful clinic had to wait several years following her graduation from veterinary school. Her first job was working at a small clinic in Muskegon for two years, before moving on to Cascade Hospital for Animals in Grand Rapids, where she was able to use more of what she had learned at school. There was far more technology to make use of there, as well, which allowed Happel to become more confident in her decision-making without relying on other veterinarians.
As she became more confident in her veterinary skills, Happel began to get the entrepreneurial itch and started looking into either buying an existing practice or starting her own.
The desire to be in charge, she added, perhaps can be traced back to her Girl Scout days when she made neighborhood children deliver her cookie orders.
Women-owned veterinary clinics are rare, Happel said, despite nearly 80 percent of current veterinary students being female.
As veterinary medicine originally involved treating large farm animals, most veterinarians in the past were men because a man’s strength was necessary, she said. Then, with small animal practices on the rise, more women entered the field, and she feels the compassion of women is well suited to the occupation.
Happel said with 80 percent of vet students being women, there’s a worry there won’t be enough people who will want to own a practice. Many female practitioners only want to work part-time, or don’t have the desire to run a business, or don’t want the burden of being responsible for the livelihood of other staff.
“It was a male-dominated profession for years,” Happel said. “It’s men who have been the owners because they’re needed to be breadwinners, or they have the competitive drive to be a business owner.”
Finding the financial support to start Eastown Veterinary Clinic was difficult, she said, as she began looking in 2009 and 2010 in the midst of the Great Recession. Eventually, she secured a loan through a program at Bank of America by partnering with two other local businesses, which helped her place a down payment.
Since her clinic opened in 2011, it’s gone from zero patients to approximately 5,000. Not including herself, the practice has expanded from three employees to 14.
Happel enjoys being part of the Eastown small business community. She said it’s nice to be able to walk down the street and buy food at E.A. Brady’s Meats and, in turn, take care of owner Aiden Brady’s dog at her clinic.
Still, she tries not to look too far out her window. Another local veterinary clinic opened up around the same time as hers and has since gone out of business.
“That was really scary for me,” Happel said. “That’s where I don’t get worried about what else is going on. I’m the best me I can be, and I make sure I take care of my patients.
“I don’t take too much time to reflect on the bigger picture. I love what I do — bottom line. That keeps me going.”