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Superior veterinarian balances booming business, pandemic

Know an essential worker with a story to share? Email reporter Melinda Lavine at mlavine@duluthnews.com or call 218-723-5346.

Vet examines dog.
Veterinarian Justin Dahl examines Max’s teeth during an examination at Happy Tails Animal Hospital in Superior.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

SUPERIOR — Justin Dahl tends to most four-legged creatures at Happy Tails Animal Hospital.

He owns the hospital, which services folks from the Twin Ports area. Like other front-line workers, Dahl saw swift changes in the veterinary industry.

At Happy Tails, they shifted to curbside care; they operated at half their staff capacity; and they hired a third vet.

“A job like this, a doctor, emergency room physician, funeral home director, these are jobs you can’t shut off,” said Dahl, of Superior. Sometimes, that means going to the clinic three or four times during a weekend to check on animals or catch up, and it’s common for pet owners to text or call — and there’s that time someone made an unexpected house call.

Like many in care careers, Dahl has worked on balance and faith.

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“Trying to maximize opportunities with my family, and then my religion,” he said.

“Just knowing that there’s a greater purpose in life. That, sometimes, what seems like a mountain for you isn’t a mountain in the scheme of things. You can work through with assistance,” he said.

Dahl took time to chat about his eclectic reading mix, how he vibes with George Strait and an abnormally long wait for penicillin.

Vet gives dog a treat.
Veterinarian Justin Dahl gives Max a treat as owner Carolyn Sturdevant watches after a Feb. 7, 2022, examination at Happy Tails Animal Hospital.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Q: Working with animals for as long as you have, do you still experience “aw, cute!” moments?

A: All the time. I think that without such moments, you have lost your humanity and it's time to retire from the profession. That is one of the greatest things about my job ... even after all of these years, I'm still learning, seeing new things, finding new ways to connect with clients and animals. It's a job that is constantly changing and evolving.

Q: You mentioned business increased during the pandemic. Did you see other trends in the veterinary industry? Or, any supply issues?

A: Besides an increase in the amount of animals/clients, the biggest issue we are facing is getting certain drugs or medications in a timely manner. This can be due to manufacturing delays, issues with the supply chain/distributors, or discontinuing of a product due to cost of making it/lack of profit in the product.

One great example is penicillin, which has been on back order for over six months now.

Q: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported COVID is spreadable to cats and dogs. Did you see any cases of that?

A: I have not seen any confirmed cases of COVID in animals, no. Most of the reports I have heard of have either been in larger cats — lions, tigers, etc. — or overseas, i.e., hamsters in Hong Kong.

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Vet talks to coworkers.
Veterinarian Justin Dahl talks with veterinary technicians Kayla Denney and Haley Nelson.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Q: You have a spouse, kids and pets. Did you have to take precautions returning home after being on the front lines? If so, what was your routine?

A: Yes, there were some basic precautions, but both my wife and I had to follow them as she is a nurse and was working directly with patients throughout the pandemic, as well. The two main things we did were to change clothes after coming home (so as to limit viral exposure in the house) and severely curtail trips anywhere but home or work. Other than an occasional run to the grocery store or the hardware store, we did not go anywhere else.

Q: Name a standout positive interaction at work during the past year-plus, and how did a moment like that impact you on the job?

A: The interactions I can think of are the same as before the pandemic: seeing the joy and smiles on people’s faces when they come in with their new puppy or kitten, being able to fix a problem like removing a tumor successfully or discovering why their furry friend is sick and healing them, and going to work with clients and co-workers I consider to be my friends and extended family.

Q: As changes are occurring with COVID, any tips for other essential workers?

Vet
Justin Dahl
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

A: Enough science is there to support vaccination in all circumstances where it is possible. Unfortunately, most masks are either not sufficient enough to prevent COVID or are not worn properly so as to do what they are intended to do. Coupled with the fact that we are all in COVID fatigue and we will not be going back to strict quarantining, vaccination is the best option that we have available at this time.

Q: In what ways do you practice self-care, and did that change during the shutdown?

A: My self care routine stayed the same during the pandemic, and in many ways it only intensified. I try to run outside every day no matter the weather or temperature (unless we are in the middle of a snow storm) and I try to read/study the Bible as often as I can.

Q: How can we support you and our other front-line heroes?

A: I think the biggest thing is for people to understand and appreciate all of the hard work the front-line employees do, oftentimes being short-staffed and overburdened. Please know that we are human beings and deserve to be treated with respect and compassion.

Q: What are you reading, listening to and watching?

A: I would tend to say my habits in this area are quite an eclectic mix. The last two books I read were “Cries from the Cross” by Erwin Lutzer (given to me by a client) and “Killing Willis” by Todd Bridges.

I listen to a lot of neotraditional country music — Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, George Strait, the Judds — as well as ’50s oldies and ’80s rock.

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I just finished watching the last season of “Shameless” and am currently binge-watching the comedy “Step by Step” with my children. My guilty pleasures are “The Goldbergs” and “The Curse of Oak Island.”

Q: If you could have dinner with any three people, alive or dead, who would they be, and why?

A: Oh, boy, was this one a doozy. I thought long and hard about this question and tried to come up with the "perfect" answer, but realized the answer should instead be thought of as a snapshot of my life at the present moment.

I would want to have dinner again with my grandfather, Frank, and would take that time to ask him more about his life and family history.

Secondly, I would like to meet Steven Armstrong, the founder of Verse By Verse Ministry International, whose approach to Biblical teaching has been very impactful on my life.

Lastly, out of left field, I would like to meet Frank Murphy, the Supreme Court justice whose dissenting opinion in Korematsu v. United States called out with exceptional honesty and considerable moral clarity one of the worse episodes of racial discrimination in the history of our country. He was a man of great faith and was not afraid to stand up for what was right even if he was in the minority.

MORE STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE IN OUR COMMUNITY

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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