Riverfront Animal Hospital closing after three decades

‘Dr. Lisa’ can’t even guess how many patients she’s seen

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For 14 years, Tamara Hicks-Syron’s beagle Elvis had been at her side as a constant companion, source of comfort and entertainment. But this summer, he became very sick while she was in Calhoun County. She bundled up Elvis and rushed him to Lansing to see his doctor at Riverfront Animal Hospital: Dr. Lisa Hassinger. Her human clients know her as Dr. Lisa.

Hicks-Syron watched while Hassinger completed the exam. A choice needed to be made: She could drive a few miles east to Michigan State University’s clinic and spend a small fortune for testing and a full diagnosis — which would be unlikely to increase Elvis’ quantity or quality of life. Or, Hicks-Syron could make the decision to let her beloved beagle go while in her arms.

“I looked at Dr. Lisa and I asked her, ‘If he was yours, what would you do?’” Hicks-Syron explained, her voice cracking with emotion. “She looked at me and said, ‘I would let him go.’” 

As Hassinger, 63, prepared for the procedure, Hicks-Syron comforted her friend while Hassinger, 63, prepared for the procedure. She mentioned to Hassinger how much she loved the beagle’s ears. Even with Elvis’ old age, they stayed soft and fluffy. Hassinger then turned around, grabbed a small index card-sized frame, clipped some of Elvis’ ear hair off and placed it in the frame. She handed it to Hicks-Syron.

Hicks-Syron had been bringing her pet beagles, and other rescues that had wandered into her life, to Hassinger’s Riverfront Animal Hospital clinic for “at least two decades.” She referred to Hassinger as the “Beagle Whisperer.” Beagles can be strong willed and difficult to deal with for pet owners who don’t know the breed; and the same is true for the vets who take care of them.

But Hassinger, after 37 years as a licensed veterinarian in Michigan, said she plans to call it quits in December on a fulfilling lifelong career. She spent her first seven years working as a vet at her current location on Larch Street before deciding to purchase the practice 30 years ago.

Exactly when walk-in services will stop is unclear — maybe Dec. 8 or Dec. 14, Hassinger said.

The decision to retire was one that became crystal clear on July 5. After more than a year of COVID-19 protocols, including an outbreak linked to her clinic, she began struggling to find staff. And it was a “tingle” felt while she was running mundane errands that clinched it.

“It was the Monday after the Fourth of July and most businesses had that Monday off,” she said, noting that she too had closed her clinic for the holiday. “I was driving around and I just realized, ‘Oh, so this is what this is like — not having to be anywhere.’”

For decades, Hassinger’s schedule had been dictated by family and clinic obligations. She raised two daughters — one is a traveling emergency room nurse, the other a special needs child who lives at home. She divorced and remarried during that time. She would always arrive at the clinic by 9 a.m. and often not leave until 7 p.m. or later.

What does she plan to do with her new free time?

“Live life,” she said with a laugh. “Do some work around the house, garden. Just live.”

Hassinger’s journey to become a vet started at the same location where she’s closing out her career. While attending Lansing Community College, she said she stopped at the clinic and asked if they would allow her to shadow the vet. Instead, they offered her a job on the spot. 

She cleaned kennels and helped with office work while she studied as a college student.

But her path was not always certain to end with being a veterinarian. At 20, her father died unexpectedly and she received a rejection letter from the MSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Rejection for a first-time applicant to vet schools is not uncommon. But Hassinger was crushed.

She considered becoming a lower-tier position as a veterinary technician. Hassinger’s friends and family, however, encouraged her to apply again. She did, and was finally admitted.

This month, she’s spending evenings and weekends handwriting the medical files for every pet in her practice to help transition the animals to new doctors. She’s doing that because her clinic is a no-frills place — no computer, no blood analyzer. Records for each animal are kept on cards, with procedures, immunizations and diagnoses inscribed by hand. It’s part of the reason that she has been able to reduce the costs of pet care for her client. And it fits her philosophy.

“I don’t want to run a bunch of tests because I need to pay certain bills,” Hassinger said. “I want my clients to understand if I tell you a procedure is needed, it’s because it is needed.”

That philosophy has given her a following of thousands of clients over the years — a lifetime number so high that she couldn’t even provide an estimate when asked to ballpark it last week.

While writing out those medical records and transferring clients to new clinics and doctors, she’s also considering what to do with the practice itself and its building. She said she is exploring several options, including selling the practice to another vet or donating it to a charity.

At the end of the year, however, whatever happens with the practice, she’ll be done with her career — and facing whatever else comes along with her parting mantra: “It is what it is.”

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