When the coronavirus hit in March, local veterinarians Gary Dunn and Stacy Horner–Dunn immediately knew business at their White Oak Animal Hospital was going to drastically change.
The married vets, who operate the animal hospital and an adjacent training center in southern Stafford County, knew their business would need to come up with a way to operate in a world where coronavirus was a constant threat.
Because of the way the caring couple has managed to maintain a high level of medical care for their four-legged patients, all while taking steps to protect pet owners and staffers from COVID-19 transmission, they are recognized as Hometown Heroes.
In nominating the couple, who have operated the practice for 24 years, Jackie DeVore said the veterinarians have been diligent in ensuring that all comers to White Oak Animal Hospital have remained safe during the pandemic.
DeVore, a White Oak Animal Hospital staffer, said people don’t think much about animal hospitals being essential during something like a pandemic. But she pointed out that care for animals is “paramount” to pet owners at all times.
“We have several immuno-compromised staff members who were concerned about becoming infected at our hospital, but needed to work in order to pay the bills,” she said.
DeVore said that no one other than staffers have been allowed in the building, and that staffers have been wearing masks and gloves at all times.
“Some clients have not been happy about not being able to be with their pet during visits,” she said, but noted the business owners “have been adamant that the staff be protected as best we can.”
I caught up recently with the veterinarians, who have been putting in longer hours than usual for the past few months, partly to keep up with constantly changing COVID-19 protocols and staffing complications. The couple started their first Virginia veterinary practice in Lynchburg after both graduated from the vet school at the University of Florida.
Dunn said through the pandemic, there’s been a singular goal: “Keeping our staff safe and clients safe as we provide care for our patients, the pets. It’s been really challenging, and I think our staff needs to get the highest accolades or recognition.”
That’s because, for most of the pandemic, customers who bring pets to White Oak have been calling when they enter the parking lot. Staffers have communicated with clients by phone when they arrive and have gone out to collect pets and bring them into the hospital, with the vets occasionally talking to customers by phone.
Horner–Dunn said several other things made providing care more complicated.
First, she said, there has been a marked increase in the number of pets coming in for treatment, something she attributes to the fact that more pet owners are at home and noticing their animals need care.
Second, with owners not able to come into the building with them, the companion animals and small mammals the practice treats have been more of a challenge.
“Some have definitely been more stressed,” she said. “Coming into the building without their people makes our job harder. We want everything here to be as positive an experience as possible, but when an owner can’t come in, some of the pets look and act more nervous than usual.”
Add the fact that early on, the animal hospital did what state and national veterinary organizations asked them to do: donate all their PPE equipment, their masks and gloves, to local hospitals that badly needed them.
Then there were the staffing issues.
“We had some staff scared or unable to come in at times,” said Dunn, “either because they live with an elderly family member, because a member of their family was or could be exposed to COVID or because they had underlying medical conditions.”
He said some staffers left and then came back, and a reduced staff has at times made things tough in a period with more animals coming in that usual.
“We found ways to limit face-to-face contact with customers,” Horner–Dunn said. “The only exception has been when a pet was being euthanized. We felt at least one family member should be able to be present for that as it’s such an emotional thing.”
She said keeping staffers 6 feet apart in areas where pets are treated has been difficult, if not impossible.
“There are times when an animal is being examined and it may take several staffers to keep it in place,” said Stacy. “There’s no way everyone can stay 6 feet away from each other leaning over the table for that.”
Dunn said since COVID-19 hit, the practice has had to balance the safety of its staff versus service to clients.
“In taking steps to protect staff, you lose some of the face-to-face relationship building as our customers are kept outside the building,” he said.
Another challenge, he said, has been providing service in a timely fashion when they are busy, despite customers putting off routine procedures.
“Most of our clients have been extremely patient, though a small number have been upset that they’ve had to wait in their cars,” he said. “Thankfully, most have been really patient and understanding that we’re doing the best we can given the situation.”
The vets are adamant about one other aspect of providing animal care in a pandemic: They’re not unique among local veterinarians.
“We’re a representation of what’s happening at all other animal clinics in this time,” said Horner–Dunn. “I think all vets are like us, just bumping along. We’re all facing the same challenges and struggles and all trying to do our part because we know animals need medical care. After all, we all do this for a living because we love animals.”