How COVID meshed my roles as a mom and a veterinarian

An animal doctor volunteers as a vaccinator to protect the human 'herd'

September 21, 2021 (published)
By Rachael Carpenter

Photo by Chris Byron
Dr. Rachael Carpenter, right, and her 12- and 15-year-old daughters, were all smiles under their masks after the girls were vaccinated against COVID-19 in the auditorium of Blacksburg High School in Virginia. Carpenter, a veterinarian and volunteer COVID-19 vaccinator, gave the jab to her children and many of their friends.

I'm a mom. I also dart polar bears, sedate camels and anesthetize horses, cats, dogs and even hamsters.

As the parent of two teenage girls and as a veterinary anesthesiologist at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (VMCVM), my days are never boring. After 15 years of balancing Mom Life and Animal Doctor Life, I've gotten really good at combining the two and don't even pause to think about how my work as a veterinarian is similar to raising kids. Neither job can be done alone; it takes teamwork.

When we anesthetize any of our patients — a horse, for example — it takes a team. No one person can do it unaided. We must safely sedate a frightened, 1,000-pound animal, convince it (with anesthetic drugs) to lie down on the ground, hoist it through the air onto the specially padded surgery table and push the horse-laden table to the nearby surgery room. Raising kids takes a team, too. You need people (spouses, grandparents, friends, coaches, etc.) to help with the heavy lifting. You can't do it alone.

However, I still had a "Wait, what? How did we get here?" moment when, earlier this year, I spent one day giving shots to horses and the next day giving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to my kids' soccer teammates. Forget about ever being a "cool mom" with my kids' friends — you know, the one who lets kids stay up all night during sleepovers, eating junk food and watching inappropriately scary movies. Now I was "vaccinator mom," a parent armed with a hypodermic needle full of lifesaving vaccine.

If you had ever told me I was going to have my 15 minutes of fame by vaccinating my kids, my friends, my friends' kids, and others in my community against an infectious disease during a pandemic, I would have thought you had sniffed too much isoflurane. Much like the journey of becoming a parent, none of us had any idea how our lives would change when the pandemic started. For our family, the pandemic arrived in our corner of rural Virginia when the schools shut down. It was Friday the 13th in March 2020 (and yes, there was also full moon that night).

What was supposed to be a two-week closure of my girls' public school turned into months of online learning. I juggled physical safety with mental health and a little too much family togetherness. We canceled travel plans, worried over elderly relatives and settled for Zoom gatherings instead of real hugs with our extended family. My worlds as a mom and a veterinarian overlapped as I tried to be in two places at once — continuing to work in the veterinary teaching hospital, with my girls schooling at home.

A few weeks into the pandemic, I read a discussion on the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession, about what veterinarians could do to help. At the time, ventilators and the health-care workers who could operate ventilators were in short supply. Would things really get so bad that veterinarians would be needed to treat people? There was no way to know. During my veterinary anesthesia residency, I trained at a human hospital and learned to intubate people. They're actually not much harder to intubate than goats. Our veterinary hospitals use the same types of ventilators as human hospitals, and veterinary hospitals around the country were lending their ventilators to human hospitals. The local health department had walked through VMCVM and tagged the ventilators they would borrow if needed. Even though having my face inches away from a COVID-19 patient would increase my risk of contracting the virus, I was willing to step up and use my training and knowledge to help others.

Fortunately, my skills as a veterinary anesthesiologist never ended up being needed in a human hospital. However, the desire to help led me to serve in the United States Medical Reserve Corps (MRC). The MRC is a national network of more than 200,000 volunteers who give their time and skills in emergency situations such as natural disasters and disease outbreaks. It includes not only physicians, nurses, emergency medical technicians and pharmacists, but also veterinarians. In anticipation of COVID-19 vaccines becoming available, I signed up, sent in my credentials, received training as a nontraditional vaccinator, and was cleared as an MRC member ready to deploy to vaccination PODs (points of delivery) when asked.

I knew vaccines would be our way out of the pandemic. Veterinarians see the benefit of vaccines every day. Vaccination against respiratory disease in herds of cattle prevents pneumonia from spreading and disrupting our food supply. Parvovirus vaccination prevents the severe disease parvo from killing the adorable puppy your family recently grew to love. Rabies vaccination protects people and pets from that deadly disease. With COVID-19 vaccines, our communities would be protected from severe illness and death. By having each person do their part and step up to get vaccinated, not only would each person protect themselves, they would protect their families and other people's families. We'd be able to protect the most vulnerable in our communities: those too young to be vaccinated and those who are immunocompromised.

I breathed a sigh of relief as members of my family got vaccinated; first, my parents in Tennessee, then my mother-in-law in Virginia. Our family was becoming protected. With this protection, normalcy could return. Our extended family would be able to gather again, my girls could get back to in-person learning, and all their friends could go back to being just teenagers, gathering indoors and participating in sports.

When it was my turn to be vaccinated, I immediately signed up and got in line. Not only did I want to do my part to help ease the pandemic but, as a mom, I wanted to protect myself for my children. If I became sick and hospitalized or, worse, died, who would be there for them? In Virginia, veterinarians are classified as essential workers because examining and treating animals is not a work-from-home job. Taking care of animals is also a team effort, as I said before, and there is no way to maintain physical distancing when working closely with others to restrain and anesthetize a dog or horse or any of our other patients. It was a huge weight off my mind to have the protection of a vaccine on top of the other protections we were using: full personal protective equipment at the beginning and now masking with good hand hygiene.

As part of the MRC, I've vaccinated a lot of people. Many were eager, some were scared but determined, others were a little hesitant but felt better after talking to me and the nurses who work for the local health department. For a time, I volunteered once a week at the state's mass vaccination sites. Our shifts lasted the entire day, and all of the coffee, snacks and lunches were donated by local businesses that knew vaccines would help stores reopen, as well as help their friends and family members keep their jobs. We administered thousands of vaccines each day at local churches, the Dedmon Center (basketball arena) at Radford University, and Lane Stadium (football stadium) at Virginia Tech. In the largest nationwide vaccination campaign since the polio pandemic, the vaccines were rolled out to older people, higher-risk people and finally, younger healthy people.

As a mom, I wanted to protect my own children. In the back of my mind ran the question: When would vaccinations be available for my own two girls?

Finally in May, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was approved for my daughters' age group. I had been volunteering for weeks at the vaccination PODs held at local high schools, so I happened to be present at one of the school sites the first day my daughters became eligible. My husband brought the girls to the high school, and they were the first vaccinated at my table that day! They both wanted me to be the one to vaccinate them. A proud mom moment for sure!

I also vaccinated several of my daughters' friends and soccer teammates that day. Many of them said that while they didn't like getting shots, having someone they knew vaccinate them really helped. Later, several kids told their parents they didn't even notice the vaccination because we were chatting about other things. (A benefit of being a vet is that I know how to move quickly to avoid getting bitten by my patients.) At soccer practice that night, several girls ran up to my daughter and told her excitedly that her mom had "poked" them with the vaccine.

Having our entire family vaccinated means we are extremely well-protected against severe disease and death from COVID-19. That has reduced my stress and worry and improved the quality of our lives. The girls have gone back to in-person school. We can give real, not just virtual, hugs to grandparents.

However, COVID-19 cases have gone up again because of the delta variant. ICUs across the country are overwhelmed, triaging care, and seeing patients unable to breathe on their own with limited means to help them. In some parts of the country, human hospitals are once again borrowing ventilators from veterinary hospitals. Again, I wondered about what more I could do to help. When a couple of colleagues at VIN asked me to write about my experience as a vaccinator in the MRC, I immediately said yes.

I said yes because I'm a mom and I worry about the other children in my community. I can't even imagine having my girls in school if they weren't vaccinated, yet for families with members under 12, this is their reality right now. As I write this, no vaccines are approved for this age group. Pfizer and BioNTech announced Monday that they're ready to apply for authorization from regulators to make their COVID-19 vaccine available for children ages 5 to 11. But right now, children in elementary school, prekindergarten and preschool are unvaccinated. The best way to immediately protect the youngest in this country, those who cannot be vaccinated yet, is for everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated.

I said yes because I'm a veterinarian and I know that vaccines work. Veterinarians are central to promoting herd health, and for years, we have been administering vaccines to protect the herds of livestock and populations of pets in this country. Now we are vaccinating people to protect the human "herd" of which we are all a part.

I said yes because I'm a veterinary anesthesiologist. If needed, I am willing to risk my safety to intubate COVID-19 patients and monitor ventilators in human hospitals. Not being able to breathe on your own is a horrible way to die. With the delta variant, hospitalized patients are younger and sicker than before.

If you are eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 but haven't yet, talk to your physician, talk to your local health department, and do your part to help end this pandemic.

About the author: Rachael E. Carpenter, DVM, is a 1999 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in her hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. After completing a one-year rotating hospital internship at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, she completed an anesthesia residency at Michigan State University. Since then, she has worked as an anesthesiologist and emergency-room clinician in veterinary teaching hospitals and private practices. Currently she is a clinical instructor in anesthesiology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and also works part-time as an anesthesia consultant for the Veterinary Information Network.

She lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, with her husband (an equine surgeon), two daughters, a Russell terrier, a cat, two bunnies and a red-headed mare. When she's not managing the chaos of work and teenagers, she can be found cheering at mountain bike races, soccer games or horse shows.

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