Continuing veterinary care throughout Covid19
Continuing veterinary care throughout Covid19
We are delighted to publish this guest blog as part of our Coronavirus Connections series. Bentley Crudgington invited Named Veterinary Surgeon, Lucy Whitfield, to share some reflections on caring at a distance as COVID changed the way staff work across Animal Research Facilities.
There were no mice coexistent with Neanderthal man in Europe; the fossil records tell us about Mus species in Africa and Asia but none further north or east. And the Neanderthal species itself died out, replaced by ‘modern humans as they walked out from Africa and settled far and wide on the continent (accompanied by other mammals).
Theories about the demise of these large-brained Neanderthals centre around their ability to be social (or not). Unlike Homo sapiens, Neanderthals lived in small groups; one idea is that they failed to capitalise and disseminate new skills and information beyond their own immediate circle, so progress was slow and erratic. H. sapiens lived in much larger groups, behaved more socially, so that technologies and skills were transmitted effectively, benefiting the species as a whole.
Look at our species now: We invent, we adapt, we share, we prosper.
It’s 8am on a Tuesday morning during Coronavirus lockdown. As a Named Veterinary Surgeon (NVS) I travel a lot. Normally, I’d be on a train at this time, perhaps trying to type up a report while the carriage lurches from side to side, and wondering if it will be as wet in Manchester as it is here. Walking upstairs to my sunny room at home today, I click the Zoom appointment on my laptop and wait for the picture and sound to catch up.
“Hi!” the cheerful voice of Karen, the unit’s Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer (NACWO), greets me, her smile fills the screen and the familiar background of an animal room appears. I’m immediately transported to the bright lights and clean surfaces of the facility and ready to join the team there. We catch up briefly about the past few days’ events – like so many of us, she is home-schooling children too, while juggling visits to work. Back to work matters, we discuss the progress of a mouse with hair loss earlier in the week, as one of the Licensees had noticed her among the group, sent me a photo and asked for advice about treatment. This white mouse is on the list to examine this morning , as well as a couple of other individuals in this busy unit. I do routine rounds in this facility every week and in between, as is usual, NACWOs like Karen are an essential link with the unit, its Licensees and the animals – our virtual “eyes and ears” if you like!
Karen and I are connected today by our laptops and we go ahead together just as we’d do on a regular visit. Together, we walk from room to room, with the laptop’s camera turned to face up the corridor, meeting and waving to colleagues whom we meet along the way. The view of the corridor sways gently as we walk virtually together but it’s good to look ahead and we’ve learned that having the camera turned face to face is weird when moving around; besides, constantly having your face on screen makes for quite an intense and tiring experience after a while!
“How are you, Dave?” I’m waving at one of the Person Licence Holders (PILs) as he passes us in the corridor and he sees me and waves back. Seeing colleagues going so happily about their normal work gives a good sense of the vibe of the unit and the way that its culture is being maintained, despite some challenging circumstances. I’m humbled by the way that the technicians continue to come to work and continue such wonderful care for their animals throughout.
It’s such a lift to see familiar faces brought close to and the sensation is almost like being there with them, as Karen and I open the door to head into another room. This unit has a convenient method of highlighting cages where mice are receiving special attention but there are no red labels in this room. All is well and proceeding as planned. Scanning the racks, I notice a mouse dash past the front of her cage. Is this a stereotypy, or just a mouse bolting back to her house? There she goes again. Yes, we decide, she may be starting a circling habit, so we take her cage to the bench, check her over together and add extra food and enrichment items to the cage as distraction. She’s fine but perhaps, like us, feeling some stress, so a red highlight label goes onto her cage, which ensures that her well-being is now monitored closely. We chat about it, as stereotypies aren’t something that we see often. Karen writes up the observation and treatment sheet for me – this I can’t do from online!
As we walk to the next room, a PIL stops me, as he wants to mention a mouse who’s not quite well this morning, so we pop in and take a look. The video quality is excellent and, as the Licensee gently holds the mouse up to the camera in his hand, I can see that the mouse’s waist looks a little ‘pinched’ and that he is starting to breathe a little faster than normal, although he looks bright and alert. The mouse is due to complete the study next week but we’ll speak with the study director and advise that the study end is brought forward to today, so that this mouse doesn’t become ill in the meantime.
The rest of the visit is uneventful and we sign off after discussing plans for new studies, the new working patterns and the ethical review meeting next week. Suddenly, I’m back in my own room, with half a cup of cold tea still on the table, forgotten while I’ve been “away”.
Yes, I miss not being able to pop down to the facility’s tea room to chat with colleagues, but being very familiar with the facility and having those strong relationships already established, it’s easy to slip in with visiting online almost as normal. The connectivity and image quality allow me to see the clean, bright unit and the details of the little mice, the ability to chat to colleagues that I ‘meet’ as we walk around and to divert to wherever’s needed are just like being there and provide a strong sense of inclusivity and satisfaction in being able to carry on my care for the animals. I’m grateful to Karen and her colleagues for taking time out of their day to be my host while I’m online.
Virtual visits perhaps can’t replace human contact but skilfully applied, we are able to replicate most of the features of an in-person veterinary visit. That’s because being involved in the day-to-day activities of a research unit comprises so much more than just walking around: it requires that we communicate throughout the week, ask questions, build relationships with key persons and apply a constant and genuine passion for improving the quality of life for all those animals involved.
We “modern humans” continue to share our knowledge and experiences, developing and using new ways to communicate and to work together for the common good.
Oh – and of course we are surrounded by mice.
Lucy Whitfield is a dedicated laboratory animal vet and acts as NVS for several facilities within the UK. She enjoys the challenges and fulfilment of working with laboratory animals in a variety of settings. Lucy is also passionate about helping to educate those who care for and work with animals in research, promoting good welfare and utilising the 3Rs. She is currently Director of Veterinary Services at Agenda.