BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The intensive care rooms at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center are full, each a blinking jungle of tubes, wires and mechanical breathing machines. The patients nestled inside are a lot alike: All unvaccinated, mostly middle-aged or younger, reliant on life support and locked in a silent struggle against COVID-19.
But watch for a moment, and glimpses of who they were before the coronavirus become clear.
Artfully inked tattoos cover the tanned forearm of a man in his 30s. An expectant mother’s slightly swollen belly is briefly revealed as a nurse adjusts her position. The young woman is five months pregnant and hooked to a breathing machine.
Down the hall, another pregnant woman, just 24 and on a ventilator, is lying prone — on top of her developing fetus — to get more air into her ravaged lungs.
Idaho hit a grim COVID-19 trifecta this week, reaching record numbers of emergency room visits, hospitalizations and ICU patients. Medical experts say the deeply conservative state will likely see 30,000 new infections a week by mid-September.
With a critical shortage of hospital beds and staff and one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates, Idaho health providers are growing desperate and preparing to follow crisis standards of care, which call for giving scarce resources to patients most likely to survive.
St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center invited The Associated Press into its restricted ICUs this week in hopes that sharing the dire reality would prompt people to change their behavior.
“There is so much loss here, and so much of it is preventable. I’m not just talking about loss of life. Ultimately, it’s like loss of hope,” said Dr. Jim Souza, chief medical officer. “When the vaccines came out in December, those of us in health care were like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s like the cavalry coming over the hill.’ … To see now what’s playing out? It’s all so needless.”
Inside the ICUs, Kristen Connelly and fellow nurses frequently gather to turn over each patient, careful to avoid disconnecting the tangle of tubes and wires keeping them alive. With breathing tubes, feeding tubes and half a dozen hanging bags of medications intended to halt a cascade of organ damage, turning a patient is a dangerous but necessary endeavor that happens twice a day.
When Idaho’s hospitals were nearly overwhelmed with coronavirus patients last winter, Connelly wasn’t fazed, believing she could make a difference. Now, instead of focusing on one patient at a time, she cares for multiple. Many colleagues have quit, burned out by the relentless demands of the pandemic.
“At this point, I’m overwhelmed. I don’t have much left,” the 26-year ICU nursing veteran said Tuesday.
Connelly’s own life is in triage mode as she tries to maintain her last reservoirs of energy. She doesn’t eat at home anymore and has cut out all activities except for walking her dog. Her normally deep sense of compassion — which Connelly considers a critical job skill — has been shadowed by a seething anger she can’t shake.
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