Posted April 01, 2020
Featuring Katheryn L. Sullivan Kutil
Michigan State Vmc Emergency
Dr. Chris Gray, 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 Director of MSU Veterinary Medical Center and a veterinary professional I ask myself daily, who should go to work? As a friend and family member I continue to worry; who will protect my loved ones in the event they get sick? COVID-19 has impacted us all. However, as Spartans, we have continued to focus on the need to protect our friends, families, and animals.

Michigan State University 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. The College’s leadership, me included, have been doing our best to address the unknowns that have come with this pandemic. Which students, if any, get to finish their clinical rotations? Will the Hospital be able to continue treating its patients? How do we protect ourselves and our loved ones? Will there still be someone there to take care of my dog or cat?

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.

Whilst we followed COVID-19 across China and Europe, we had little sense of how quickly things would unfold. That was until Wednesday, March 11. With the critical help of College leadership, I spent the next four days dramatically changing our operations at the Hospital, so we could not only continue to deliver emergent care to our animal friends, but so we could protect our veterinary healthcare team, which still 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, beginning revised operations Monday, March 16. 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.

Msuvets Triage
An aspect of the Hospital's parking-lot-triage system.

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. They’re coming up with very creative and inventive ways to deliver clinical education from a remote setting for students whose hospital rotations were cut short. They’ve been healing animals, teaching, and conducting research in a very different way, and for that, our College community gives them much credit.

We’ve worked very 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. This is where we triage patients based on their presenting symptoms. Once inside, our team practices social distancing amongst themselves as best as we can, and we wear medical masks. But we’ve had to acknowledge that 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 every day, twice a day, in which they have to attest to whether they are ill or not, if they have travelled 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 fears.

Msuvets Large Animal
MSU Large Animal clinicians practicing physical distancing during morning rounds.

Our team, of whom we are all so proud (especially me), feels torn between doing their jobs and protecting their families—they want to help animals, but they don’t know if that person who just said they weren’t ill was, in fact, ill, or whether their coworker who doesn’t appear to be ill, is actually ill and asymptomatic. Then, they have to go home to their 80-year-old mother who they care for, who’s a high-risk individual. 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, leadership and I are trying to implement even more change within the Hospital—spreading people out more, changing shift patterns, and increasing coverage by personal protective equipment (PPE). We’re only taking emergencies and we have cancelled 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 percent, which means that we can spread staff out more and keep the Hospital open. Of course, all this wouldn’t be possible without teamwork.

Everyone has really come together. This was brought to life by our handmade medical mask initiative. Another example is the incredible working relationship we have with the other MSU health colleges and our broader medical community members like Sparrow Hospital. Whether it be in terms of developing best practices to look after our workers or sharing PPE, we know we’re not alone in this.

Msu Covid19 People
The MSU Small Animal reception area.

In fact, we’ve inventoried which equipment we have at our veterinary hospital that may help human hospitals. On March 27, we sent our ventilators and continual renal replacement therapy machine to Sparrow Hospital. 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 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, but also as a society. We’re all here together to promote One Health.