Patient, dedicated, flexible, resilient — these are just a few words to describe the commitment shown by SVM faculty, staff, and students while navigating the new territory of COVID-19.
In the face of COVID-19, we each had to adapt in unique ways. For Kim Lord Plummer, that meant transporting anatomy specimens from the School of Veterinary Medicine to her home and scouting the best location to demonstrate the anatomical features of a horse’s hind limb. A shift to alternative delivery of instruction meant that lessons typically taught in person would now be delivered online.
The senior lecturer (pictured at right) zeroed in on her sunroom, drew the curtains, and placed the leg bones on a table. Then her husband hit record on their video camera. Anything for the students of the large animal anatomy course.
“I got permission to go into work and collected a few key specimens so I could demonstrate the most important, and typically the more difficult, concepts,” says Plummer. Her husband’s expertise in video recording and editing was a major asset. The pair “learned in real-time as we went,” she says.
There are several unique components to the equine hindlimb that are striking to see in action and clinically important, so Plummer believed that detailed video demonstrations would be valuable.
“A picture is worth a thousand words, and in this case, I think the video is worth a thousand pictures. I got very good feedback from students about these videos — they reported that they made a difference in their understanding of the material,” she notes.
Plummer’s resourcefulness is just one example of the dedication and drive demonstrated by faculty, staff, and students as teaching abruptly moved online for the last several weeks of the spring semester. Amid this altered landscape, instructional teams gathered virtually to determine how best to adapt and ensure that students could complete the academic year. Instructors swiftly learned new technologies and modified teaching materials. Lessons that might typically be delivered in a 50-minute lecture were broken up into short video vignettes, easier to digest in an online format. PowerPoint presentations merged with guided narration. Breakout discussions helped simulate a live classroom. Lab instructors worked adeptly to mimic hands-on experiences. Virtual office hours took the place of face-to-face visits. Exams were delivered through online tools.
“Veterinary medical students are highly motivated, very adaptable, and typically very accommodating, so they really did rise to the challenge of online learning as quickly as we did to creating it,” recalls Plummer.
Clinical rotations for fourth-year veterinary medical students and externships canceled due to the pandemic presented another challenge. Faculty and staff again worked rapidly to implement clinically relevant virtual experiences. These included online rounds to discuss specific topics and clinical cases. Clinical encounters in the teaching hospital were also streamed to students through live and recorded video. For example, within several service areas, students virtually interacted with cases and clients in real-time. (On July 6, in-person clinical rotations resumed for the Class of 2021.)
Challenges did arise — students longed for the camaraderie and in-person support of classmates. Faculty and staff missed the real-time feed-back and personal connections of the classroom. There were inevitable technological problems. And many people required time to care for themselves and loved ones due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Support for one another was emphasized frequently, with levity mixed in. In a March 19 email to third-year veterinary medical students, Clinical Assistant Professor Grayson Doss wrote, “Because we will not have in-person lab sessions, I will post instructional videos. Make sure to spend some extra time laughing at me talking to the camera — it’s good medicine.”
In feedback provided to the school in late March, a fourth-year student shared, “The faculty are doing such a great job. They are being very patient with us and I still feel like I am learning a lot.” Another said, “I love that the doctors ask us every day how we are doing. I really feel cared for and I know that if I needed to talk to anyone, I could reach out.” Yet another added, “I think that everything that the faculty and staff are doing is helpful. They are expressing their empathy, asking how we are, and giving us awesome resources.”
Lessons learned from the experience will carry forward to future instruction, whether in-person, virtual, or a hybrid form — the current approach for the fall semester. Faculty and staff have on numerous occasions gathered to debrief on what went well this spring and what could be improved, and to share resources and ideas. Recommendations for the future, no matter the medium, include incorporating more collaborative group work to encourage student engagement; segmenting lectures into shorter portions to create opportunities for interaction; and integrating additional blended learning techniques, combining remote instruction with active in-person learning.
“Our faculty and staff have worked tirelessly to creatively find ways to deliver instruction remotely and engage in assessment activities,” says Lynn Maki, associate dean for student academic affairs. “I am impressed with how they have continued to deliver an amazing education. And I am so proud of our students for their flexibility, commitment, and perseverance.”
Show of Support
As School of Veterinary Medicine students adapted to drastic changes required by COVID-19, school administrators knew that perhaps now more than ever it was critical to maintain counseling services.
“Our students faced a number of challenges through the pandemic, like many Americans dealing with social isolation, anxiety, and the vast uncertainty of the entire situation,” says Shelly Wissink, senior counselor with the school’s Personal and Wellness Support Services (PAWSS).
In March, PAWSS shifted online to support students virtually. The office has noticed an uptick in anxiety, depression, and general mental health needs. Wissink points out that for students, like many, “quarantine didn’t occur in a vacuum, so there are still interpersonal issues, job searches, and a host of external factors affecting everyday life coupled with an unprecedented time.”
Students also experienced loss and grief for canceled life events, including the school’s graduation and awards ceremonies, which had to be held as virtual celebrations. “Sometimes there is a tendency to downplay this reaction when compared to the scope of the pandemic. It is important to acknowledge these feelings, and it’s acceptable to be sad and disappointed when important personal milestones are not able to be celebrated as we had hoped,” notes Wissink.
Counselor Christina Frank says she and PAWSS colleagues have encouraged people to be thoughtful about the routines they create for themselves, and how they treat themselves. Among the recommendations: keep regular sleep schedules, go outside, get exercise, focus on healthy eating, and spend positive social time (while physical distancing) with loved ones.
“We also encourage self-compassion, and talking to ourselves the way we would talk to a friend,” she adds.
Related: View CDC recommendations for coping with stress and attending to mental health amid the pandemic.
Persevering for Patients
For Ruthanne Chun DVM’91, operating UW Veterinary Care during a disease outbreak comes down to the following: “We are doing our best to flatten the infection curve, adhering to the portion of the veterinary oath to ‘protect the health of the public and the environment,’ as well as fulfill our jobs as clinical veterinarians with clients and patients whom we care about deeply. It’s a tough balance.”
Chun, associate dean for clinical affairs and teaching hospital director, shared that message in an April 10 email to referring veterinarians — just one audience the hospital has been in frequent communication with since the novel coronavirus emerged in Wisconsin and across the world.
Initially, in mid-March, the hospital closed temporarily when a School of Veterinary Medicine employee was diagnosed with COVID-19. During the closure, care continued for hospitalized patients and clinicians remained available remotely to consult with other veterinary medical practitioners on cases and questions. The hospital reopened the following week to serve life-threatening emergencies and current patients requiring ongoing treatments or medically necessary appointments.
Since then, operations have gradually increased to include additional cases, with strict safety protocols in place to protect the health of clients, staff, and the community. New services have also been introduced to help reach pets and people despite physical distancing, including a Primary Care telemedicine service. Currently, clients are not entering the building for appointments; instead, patient drop-offs and pickups occur in the hospital parking lot.
Judy Hughes’ Papillon Shelby (pictured at right), who is battling liver disease, has continued to receive treatments at UW Veterinary Care amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Shelby’s chronic condition requires amino acid infusions every two weeks. Hughes says she is grateful for the excellent care, and that the safety precautions “in no way take away from my conversations with her doctor. I continue to get all the needed updates on her situation as well as any prescription needs. We feel safe and well cared for.”
With information around COVID-19 changing almost daily, Chun has worked tirelessly to keep herself and colleagues apprised. For months she has been in consultation with other veterinary medical teaching hospitals across the nation and world, and since March she has sent daily emails with operational updates to the UW Veterinary Care team.
“Adapting to a pandemic has been hard, exhausting work. I know our clinicians want nothing more than to be able to welcome back all of our patients and clients once it is safe to do so,” says Chun. “Until that’s possible, we thank clients for their patience and understanding. And I thank our dedicated hospital staff for all they have been doing, often behind the scenes, to provide care to our patients, teach our students, and keep us running.”