MONTREAL — When Dr. Donald Benoit greeted his first patients at a Montreal mass vaccination site on Monday, he could tell right away it would take some adjustment.
As usual, he began to talk gently to them and to make sure they seemed calm.
“I like to greet them, I like to get up… I’ll walk with them,” he said. He accompanied them to the table where they’d get the needle.
But then, as he prepped the syringe, he found the patients would weigh in about where it should go—“I do use my right arm more for lifting,” one informed him.
Dr. Benoit had never experienced this.
“It’s so new for me, right?” he said. “It’s quite a bit easier… we have a bit of a discussion around ‘Okay, so which arm?’”
Benoit is a veterinarian, one of the first to step in at the request of the Quebec government to help ramp up the province’s mass COVID-19 vaccination to maximum speed. He’s one of what appears to be just a handful of vets so far in Canada or the U.S. to do so.
For 15 years, he treated dogs, cats and a wide assortment of exotic animals, too, he explained to CTV News—“everything from rabbits to snakes to parrots.”
But Monday was his first time ever treating humans, and he found them to be incredibly pleasant when it came to needles.
Within his own experience, they were most akin to “a very laid-back golden retriever… that can talk to you, you know?” he said.
Jokes aside, Benoit immediately volunteered when the call went out around December, he said.
“Living through this long year, any way I could speed up the process…I jumped at it,” he said.
“I’m contributing in my small way to having everybody from our province vaccinated as quickly as possible.”
Quebec, like a few other provinces and U.S. states, has called upon a wide variety of health professionals to lend a hand with COVID-19 vaccination, including some who have no experience giving needles, such as dietitians and physiotherapists.
Vets are somewhat the opposite—they have more needle-giving skills than most doctors and nurses, used to dealing with a variety of squirming, agitated, furry, sometimes feathered species.
But all the newly recruited vaccine helpers in Quebec, including vets, must do two training sessions of several hours each before they join the mass vaccination teams. They practice giving needles to oranges and then giving a saline solution into people’s arms within the training session.
BREAKING IT TO THE PATIENTS
Dr. Benoit gave about 25 shots on Monday and arrived for a second shift early on Wednesday at the Bob Birnie arena in Pointe-Claire.
He noticed he holds the needle with a different grip than nurses, he said, and he has one other habit he can’t shake.
“You are taught to always pull back on the plunger to make sure you’re not in a blood vessel when you give a vaccine to a dog or a cat,” he explained. It’s a needed safeguard for animals: checking to see that no little red dot appears at the end of the syringe.
It’s not necessary in human shoulders, because “in the deltoid, there’s no major blood vessels there,” he said.
But it’s an ingrained habit for him, he said.
“It’s a fraction of a fraction of a second… the person doesn’t know I’m doing that,” he said. “It’s just a vet thing, I guess.”
Vaccine appointments in Quebec this week are mostly going to people over 80. Benoit told all his vaccinees that he was a vet, but he usually waited until after the shot to do it.
None so far have been thrown off by the news. On Wednesday, a few asked politely, “Oh, is that right?” when he told them of his day job.
“That’s a good thing,” added Edith Reitel, one of Benoit’s vaccinees.
“I think it’s great that everybody is stepping up,” another, Maxine Williams, told CTV. “The process this morning is so smooth.”
It’s brought some needed laughter, said Benoit. One vaccinee jokingly demanded a treat after the shot. Another asked “was I a good dog?” Benoit said.
For some, “once they learn they were injected by a veterinarian, they completely lose it and start laughing.”
Benoit no longer has a veterinary practice, working now as a consultant in veterinary medication, so “I’ve been doing virtual calls everyday all day,” he said.
“Just coming in here is just fantastic.”
ONE OF A HANDFUL ACROSS CANADA
Allowing vets to give any kind of treatment to humans is unprecedented in Quebec, and still extremely unusual across the continent, even within the COVID-19 crisis.
In the U.S., over the course of the winter, Connecticut, Colorado and Nevada have authorized vets to give COVID-19 vaccines.
In Canada, Manitoba appears to be the only other province to take the same step with a Dec. 9 order.
“We currently have four veterinarians and five veterinary technologists on our staff as immunizers,” said a Manitoba provincial spokesperson.
A few Ontario public health regions have floated the idea, said the head of the College of Veterinarians of Ontario, but the province hasn’t passed an emergency bill allowing it.
“Does it make some good sense? Sure,” said Jan Robinson, the CEO of the college. “Veterinanians are very skilled, of course, at giving injections to a variety of species… we [humans] are just one more.”
On the other side, she said, there’s a shortage of vets across Canada and “veterinarians are run off their feet,” though she said many would be keen to help.
In Quebec, the decree allowing the change came on Dec. 3 and authorizes vets, as well as a long list of other professionals, to give both COVID-19 and flu vaccines this season.
A Quebec provincial spokesperson said it’s too soon to say exactly how many vets will end up helping. The province has organized its vaccination volunteers with an app that alerts the pool of professionals when a certain site will be understaffed.
CTV News heard of about three vets in the Montreal area that are already involved.
VET MEDICINE IS ‘A PEOPLE BUSINESS’
One of those, Dr. Caroline Kilsdonk, said she’ll begin giving needles on the South Shore next week, a “very special” occasion.
“Historically, veterinarians have never had authorization to do any act on humans,” Kilsdonk told CTV.
“It’s really a unique occasion for members of our profession.”
Kilsdonk, who used to be the head of Quebec’s order of veterinarians, was raised on a farm and later treated small pets. She’s now retired from practice.
“What I’ve been thinking about is there’s something that a lot of people don’t know about the vet profession,” she said, which is that they’re fundamentally “at the service of human health.”
Pets “improve the quality of life of their owner,” she said, but vets also help keep meat products safe and farm animals healthy, which ensures humans’ food supply and also prevents disease transmission.
After all, she said, “about two-thirds of emerging diseases in humans come from animals in origin”—including, most likely, COVID-19 itself.
Benoit also said that in the end, being a vet is a “people business,” since animals’ owners are often worried sick.
“The emotional conversation is with the owner,” he said.
Comparatively, all in all, he “had a lot of fun” with the new patients, he said.
-With files from CTV’s Christine Long