By Tracy Agnew
Dani Howell is the daughter and granddaughter of dentists. She grew up helping out with office work at the practice where her father, Dr. Ralph Howell, and grandfather, Dr. Leroy Howell, have cared for generations of Suffolk residents.
Even so, she never felt pressure to become a dentist herself. In fact, she meant to avoid it. But that plan went awry.
“I think I sort of always avoided it a little bit,” said the 29-year-old Howell, who received her license to practice dentistry earlier this month and began seeing patients last week. “They never pressured me. If they had, I might be younger sitting here.”
Howell, a graduate of Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, felt there was an expectation by others that either she or her sister would become a dentist. But she disregarded that and went to Elon University to study political science and business.
After her undergraduate work, she began applying to law schools.
“I took all the tests you needed to take, but my heart wasn’t in it,” she said. She thought maybe she would be a lobbyist, but she soon realized that the only things she felt passionate enough to lobby for revolved around oral health care — making sure patients have access to care and protecting the professionalism of dentistry.
“I think there was always a bug in the back of my head,” she said.
So Howell changed course and was accepted to the Medical College of Virginia. She got her license on June 2 and began seeing patients at the practice last Monday, alongside her father and grandfather. Working with both of them on her first day had been a dream of hers since she started dental school.
“Once I decided I wanted to go to dental school, that was important to me,” she said. “I want to be as great as them.”
Howell said she has enjoyed being able to ask her father and grandfather for advice. One day, she had a difficult tooth extraction and relied on her grandfather’s expertise to guide her.
“It’s nice to have people you trust and know they do a great job to be right down the hall,” she said.
Having more recently attended dental school, she’s also been able to teach her father and grandfather some things about emerging practices and new research in the field.
The young doctor’s predecessors are excited to have her in the office.
“I definitely was thrilled and happy she made that choice,” said her father, Ralph Howell, who is 57. He hopes it will be as great a working relationship as that between himself and his own father.
“It’s been great working with him over the years,” he said. “I’m looking forward to working with her for many more.”
Dr. Leroy Howell, 86, noted that if he can hold out for another three years, the three Howells will have 100 years of combined experience. He alone has practiced for 62 years, 58 of them in Suffolk.
“I think one is very fortunate to see his son and his granddaughter go through college and dental school … and be back and practice together,” Leroy Howell said. “I don’t know anywhere three generations are practicing together.”
Ralph Howell also said he believes the family’s situation is rare.
“I’ve known several third generations, but none that have practiced together,” he said. “Suffolk has had several multi-generational businesses, like Birdsong Peanuts … but from a dental standpoint, it’s rare.”
The Howells’ dental practice, which has downtown and Harbour View locations, sees patients of all ages. Some patients of the practice are likely in their fourth or fifth generation by now, Ralph Howell estimated. A fourth doctor, Marvin Sagun, is also part of the practice.