Inside the ICU: An exclusive look inside Bonner General Health’s intensive care unit

The intensive care unit is a place nobody wants to end up. It's a place where they fight for their lives as they battle COVID-19.

SANDPOINT, Idaho– The intensive care unit is a place nobody wants to end up. It’s a place where they fight for their lives as they battle COVID-19.

That’s what’s happening inside the sterile, quiet and desolate environment inside the ICU at Bonner General in Sandpoint, Idaho. 4 News Now reporter Elenee Dao went to Bonner General Health and Hospital to hear from the health care workers who have been on the frontlines since the start of the pandemic.

Sandpoint is a beautiful town that about 7,000 people call home.

Bonner General is a small hospital with only 25 critical care beds. That includes four ICU beds. It’s been mostly full for the last few months and now is operating at crisis standards of care  (CSC).

At Bonner General Health, operating under CSC means there are longer wait times in the emergency room, team nursing has been activated, where more patients are cared for at a time with one emergency room nurse and another nurse from another department in a team.

For the medical workers who have been on the frontlines since the beginning of the pandemic, it’s hard.

The day-to-day work doctors, nurses and hospital staff have to do is draining. While 4 News Now was there, they were taking care of 16 patients. Ten of them have COVID and three are in the ICU.

Between having to deal with an onslaught of COVID patients to being in a community where a lot of people don’t believe what’s going on, health care workers say they are devastated. Idaho has the second-lowest vaccination rate in the country. On average, 95 percent of their patients are unvaccinated.

People are dying often and doctors and nurses don’t know how much more they can take.

“It just keeps spiraling and it’s personal and people are dying, and people are dying who don’t need to die,” said Dr. Stacey Good, the chief of medical staff and an ER physician.

Dr. Good said she is in love with all the things that make Sandpoint a great place to live. The lake, the mountains and the small town feel are all that make it home to her. However, she says there is a growing movement that is very individually oriented and against masks, vaccines and COVID.

“That makes it hard to be a part of when you don’t support it,” Good said.

Back inside the ICU at Bonner General, it was eerily quiet. A small hum of several oxygen tanks could be heard in the background in the small ICU. That was the sound of people fighting for their lives and health care workers hoping things get better.

“Everything else is just stripped. Everything else about COVID that we’ve been dealing with, the political nature of it, the vaccines of it. When it comes down to it, these are human lives and they’re being lost, and we’re here trying to fight for them,” Good said.

As health care workers try to fight for those fighting for their lives, a lot goes on in trying to keep them alive. In Bonner General’s four-bed ICU, they have plastic ‘anti-rooms’ where nurses and doctors can go in and safely gear up in PPE before going into the patient’s room.

Oxygen tanks now lie inside the ICU, which they didn’t before COVID. Wires for oxygen would normally come through the wall to the patient, but COVID patients require more. So, each tank in the ICU is connected to one patient.

Chief Nursing Officer Tracy Autler said they go through about 50 tanks a day, needing it to be changed every few hours.

Good said she thought the vaccine would turn the tide.

“For the first time, I felt joy and relief in almost a year, and I felt like there was a light at the end of this tunnel, having no idea that there was going to be all these things surrounding the vaccine, political things, rights,” she said.

Good was in the army for eight years; her husband was also deployed to Afghanistan. After all that, they came to Sandpoint.

Being in the military, Good believes she and her husband are better at “compartmentalizing” than other staff.

She’s learned how to triage in the military, and they’re back to that, having to figure out who needs to be treated first.

Being an ER physician, Dr. Good says when a patient becomes unstable outside of the ER, she has to respond; that’s why she has to go to the ICU and work with COVID patients.

Since the recent COVID surge, Good says half the people she sees in a regular 12-hour shift are COVID patients.

Going through what she has to in the emergency room, from possibly seeing a sick kid, then going to do CPR for another patient who then passes away, she still has to keep going.

“Get two minutes away to decompress after they pass away, and then go deal with someone’s chronic back pain,” Good continued. “You have to be able to compartmentalize that, but what do you do with that at the end?”

For months, nurses and doctors have heard it all while treating COVID patients. That includes hearing from people who don’t even believe in the very virus they’re infected with.

Dr. Good specifically once heard a patient say, “Thank goodness I’m getting it, it’s just the flu.”

Hearing things like that constantly, while still having to treat patients can be too much– but they do it because that’s what they swore to do.

Dr. Good said the patient who said that later died.

“It’s exhaustion and it’s, to an extent, almost hopelessness,” Good said. “Like, what are we, what are we fighting for?”

“It’s frustrating, because then they come seeking my help in the ER, but they didn’t want to listen to my expertise before. But, we’ll always take care of them. We’ll take care of them like they’re my dad or my mom or someone that I love. It doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating. It doesn’t mean it’s not difficult. It doesn’t mean it’s not taxing emotionally and mentally,” Good said.

The pandemic isn’t over. People continue dying from the virus every day.

When we first got to Bonner General, there were three people in the ICU. Just a few hours later, a fourth bed got taken up. The next day, one of those ICU patients died.

In a normal year, Bonner General Health says an average of 20 people die there. So far this year, that number is 66. A majority of those 66 were COVID patients.

“If I can show you what I see when I walk through the hospital, then maybe you would believe it’s real, it’s heavy, it’s very emotional. We’re burned out and we’re tired,” Autler said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Bonner General Health was ready to take on COVID patients and people praised them for it.

That is not the case anymore.

“A year or so, we were hailed as heroes and now it’s just the complete opposite. We’re ‘lying’, we’re ‘fabricating’. We’re not– and it’s very disheartening. It really is disheartening,” Autler said.

Autler said some of her nurses don’t feel safe anymore, including her.

“A lot of people are not wearing their scrubs out. They’re changing their clothes before they go. They’re not leaving with their name badges on. They’re just trying protect themselves,” Autler said. “We shouldn’t have to do that. We’re nurses, we’re not in the line of fire, but that feels like where we’re at right now, that, I don’t want to leave work and not feel safe.”

“The hard part is because of HIPAA and privacy, we can’t often say what’s really going on to protect the people in our community, we are a small community. We can’t say how we really feel for fear of, of being threatened up here in a small community,” Dr. Good said.

They’re in a community they love, but no longer feel supported in and are continuously devastated by what’s happening within the walls.

RELATED: Misinformation leads to animosity toward Idaho health care workers

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue being an emergency medicine physician. I say that with difficulty because I’m a good ER physician. When a patient is sick, I enjoy what I do. I don’t enjoy this,” Good said, contemplating what it would be like a year from now.

“My hope is that the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train, and that this stops somehow, somewhere,” Autler said.”I just hope people believe. I hope there’s an answer and that we get back to some sort of normalcy if we even know what that is anymore.”

When it comes to employees leaving Bonner General Health, it’s not because of a vaccine mandate. Idaho does not have a vaccine requirement for health care workers and Bonner General Health employees don’t have to get the shot. However, they are still short-staffed. The reason? Health care workers are exhausted.

“Both my husband and I are ER docs. We have a three and six-year-old, and we never get to put this away,” Good said. “We go home with this. There’s always something. I didn’t go into emergency medicine to have to make the decisions we’re making on a daily basis.”

“You can’t turn it off. I go home and all I do is think about this place, if I get a text message or a call in the middle of the night, it just gives me this feeling of doom,” Autler said.

After all Good and Autler went through, they feel defeated, not knowing if they can change minds anymore about what they’re going through and the severity of COVID.

“Even if you don’t believe, we respect your personal choice. But know what we are going through. This is real,” said Autler. “Be kind and be compassionate, because health care right now is not what we signed up for, but we’re here every single day. Every single day.”

“I think that there is power in choosing and the power of choosing to get vaccinated is important, and even if it’s one at a time, we’re just getting closer and closer to people being vaccinated,” Good added.

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Editor’s note: To be transparent, 4 News Now allowed Bonner General Health to screen video before it was aired on TV and online. That was not to make any changes in content but to protect patient privacy.