Faculty voice:

Chris Gray: Hearing from heroes

March 31, 2020

Chris Gray is the director of the MSU Veterinary Medical Center

For at least the past three weeks, I’ve witnessed Spartans across campus and beyond have their reality shaken as the pandemic that is COVID-19 unfolds. As a parent, I’ve asked, “Who gets to go to school?” As the leader of MSU’s Veterinary Medical Center, I’ve had to ask daily, “Who should go to work?” COVID-19 has impacted us all but, as Spartans, we will continue focusing on the need to protect our friends, families and animals.

The College of Veterinary Medicine is home to the MSU Veterinary Medical Center, a 24/7/365 emergency and specialty hospital for large and small animals. We have been doing our best to address the unknowns that have come with this pandemic, such as which students — if any — get to finish their clinical rotations, deciding if and how the hospital could continue treating its patients and how to protect ourselves and our loved ones — both human and animal. 

As I followed COVID-19 across China and Europe, there was no sense of how quickly things would unfold. That was until Wednesday, March 11. I spent the next four days dramatically changing hospital operations so we could not only continue delivering emergent care to our animal friends, but also so we could protect our veterinary healthcare team (which included students at the time). 

We went from having relatively normal operations to setting up a triage system in our parking lot three days later and by Friday, March 20, it became clear that students could no longer be a part of the hospital’s veterinary healthcare teams. The leadership team continues to review how we operate as new advice is issued by various authorities, and we update our processes daily.The goal throughout this entire process — from continuously revising our operations to implementing several safety protocols — has been to make sure we keep our whole healthcare team safe. This includes the animals who need us. It was, and still is, very important to us that we’re able to look after our emergent animal cases and recognize the importance of the human-animal bond. Animals are still going to get sick and injured during this time; it’s our mission to be a team of passionate and determined veterinary professionals who are dedicated to improving animal health.

Of course, it’s not just me and our hospital teams that have had to switch gears. Our faculty are still delivering education to students by developing creative, inventive ways to deliver clinical education from a remote setting. They’ve been healing animals, teaching and conducting research in a very different way. For that, our college community gives them much credit.

We’ve worked hard within the hospital to try and protect everyone — our people, our clients and their pets — all the while healing the animals who need us. As such, clients no longer come into the hospital, but remain in the parking lot with their animals. Once inside, our team is wearing medical masks and practicing social distancing as best as we can. But, there are times when we have to be close to one another, like when we perform surgery or put in an IV catheter. Unfortunately, there are times when our team members are going to be within six feet of one another for more than five minutes. And this is unsettling for many of them.To provide additional safety precautions, we set up a telephone triage system on Saturday, March 21. Every member of the healthcare team gets a text message twice a day, every day, in which they attest to whether they are ill or not, if they have traveled or if they’ve been in contact with a COVID-19 positive individual. We also added mandatory temperature-taking- and recording to these practices. While this is working well, it hasn’t allayed all fears.

Our team, of whom we are all so proud (especially me), feels torn between doing their jobs and protecting their families. On a daily basis, we’re dealing with individuals who want to be here, but are frightened by the fact that they have increased exposure to COVID-19 because they can’t be social distancing properly.

To address these concerns, our leadership is trying to implement even more change within the hospital — spreading people out more, changing shift patterns and increasing coverage by personal protective equipment, or PPE. We’re only taking emergencies and we have canceled all elective appointments; we’ve been very strategic about what appointments we schedule, if at all. Because of that, our caseload has decreased by approximately 50%, which means that we can spread staff out more and keep the hospital open

Of course, all this wouldn’t be possible without teamwork — I’m so impressed how everyone has come together, which resonates through our handmade medical mask initiative. We also share an incredible working relationship with the other MSU health colleges and our broader medical community members, like Sparrow Hospital. Whether sharing best practices or sharing PPE, we know we’re not alone in this. We’ve inventoried equipment we have at our own hospital that may help human hospitals and on March 27, we sent our ventilators and continual renal replacement therapy machine to Sparrow. Though this means we can no longer use those machines on our animal patients, we were faced with this difficult decision and knew we could play a part in preserving human life.

Veterinary colleges, clinics and hospitals across the country are going through the exact same trials, tribulations and adjustments that we are. At MSU, we’re very grateful for the support we’ve received from our veterinary community — animal owners, veterinary practices that refer their patients to our clinic and the larger Spartan community. We really are all in this together. I’m grateful to have so many true partners in our mission to look after animals.

And we’re grateful for our students. We wish they could still be in the clinics with us, learning from our team and helping us save lives. I urge them to remember that they have the knowledge, the expertise and the skills to succeed. The education they’ve received has prepared them to deal with all the obstacles they may face in the future, including events like this.

What I am realizing through all of this, it’s that everyone — Spartans, veterinarians, animal owners, students and the public — can come together in a crisis by making adjustments and finding solutions. We’re changed because of this crisis, in a growing kind of way. I know I certainly am. As we come out on the other side, I have real optimism that we will operate in a different way, both as a clinic and as a society. We’re all here together to promote One Health.