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News >  Idaho

Tri-Cities business leader spent 2 days in Idaho emergency room, waiting for ICU bed

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 16, 2021

Bob Ferguson, the first deputy assistant secretary of nuclear energy programs for the U.S. Department of Energy, has made a $500,000 gift for the first endowed faculty position in energy and environment at the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus.  (Courtesy of Washington State University)
Bob Ferguson, the first deputy assistant secretary of nuclear energy programs for the U.S. Department of Energy, has made a $500,000 gift for the first endowed faculty position in energy and environment at the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus. (Courtesy of Washington State University)
By Annette Cary Tri-CitY Herald

One of the Tri-Cities’ well-known business leaders and philanthropists spent two days in a North Idaho hospital’s emergency room waiting for a bed in an intensive care unit, says his family.

Bob Ferguson was vacationing near Sandpoint when he had a serious stroke, said his daughters, Cathie Kolinski of Chicago and Colleen Ferguson Lowry of Portland.

Ferguson, 88, was the deputy assistant secretary of nuclear programs for the Department of Energy and chief executive for the Washington Public Power Supply System. He then founded and developed Tri-Cities area companies focused on nuclear waste management, environmental consulting and nuclear safety training.

After a stroke on Aug. 25 he was initially taken to a small Idaho hospital that lacked a neurosurgeon to provide the care he needed.

There the search started, scouring the Northwest, including in the Tri-Cities, for a hospital with a critical care bed available.

Within a couple hours he was flown by helicopter to a larger hospital in Idaho, where his wait for an ICU bed continued, his daughters said.

The experience left them frustrated and angry with people who do not get a COVID-19 vaccination.

ICU beds were filled with COVID-19 patients, almost all of whom were not vaccinated against COVID, his daughters were told.

The Ferguson family was not the only one struggling because of decisions by others not to be vaccinated, Kolinski said.

Surgeries were being canceled because so many COVID patients required staff time and hospital resources.

Ferguson’s daughters ended up helping with his care, feeding, bathing and shaving him, as the hospital’s overworked staff cared for other patients.

They also made sure his pain medication was delivered and monitored his condition, helping staff discover that he had an undiagnosed infection.

ICU doctors cared for him in the emergency department.

After two days he was transferred to an ICU bed and soon after that to an acute care unit.

Rooms meant for one patient now held two beds.

There was no nurse call button for Ferguson, the second patient in the room, and just one monitor for both patients.

His roommate was ready to be released for care at a rehabilitation center, but he was still waiting after two and a half weeks when Ferguson left the hospital.

His daughters arranged a private airplane for a medical evacuation on Sept. 6 to the Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, affiliated with Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

His daughters said he faces a difficult and long road to recovery.

Hospitals busier

Among touching moments at the Idaho hospital was seeing Idaho National Guard members walking past the door of Ferguson’s room, Lowry said. They had been called in to help overwhelmed hospital staff.

A low point was one night when they watched from a hospital window as anti-vaxxers protested outside, Kolinski said.

Since Ferguson was treated in northern Idaho, hospitals there have only gotten busier.

On Sept. 7, a day after Ferguson was flown to Chicago, Idaho activated its Crisis Standards of Care provision in the northern part of the state as there were more coronavirus patients than hospitals could handle.

It allows hospitals to decide who receives treatment and limited resources – not just for COVID but for all conditions – based on factors such as their age and whether their job is vital to providing care during the pandemic.

Ferguson and Tri-Cities

In his retirement Ferguson has written books on the nation’s nuclear waste issues and co-founded Clean Up Hanford Now, a Tri-Cities nonprofit advocating for accelerating cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation and promoting a new clean energy mission for the site.

He and two other Tri-Cities business leaders successfully sued the federal government in 2010, forcing it to resume the licensing review of Yucca Mountain, Nev., for disposal of the nation’s high level radioactive weapons waste and used commercial nuclear fuel.

Earlier this year he donated $500,000 to Washington State University Tri-Cities to endow a faculty position in energy and environment as the first step to developing a future institute at the university to analyze the best ways for clean energy production to grow in the area and to educate workers for the industry.

Previously the Ferguson family donated $100,000 to start the William R. Wiley Scholarship for WSU Tri-Cities students.

He also was a major donor for the Ferguson Education Center, a Montessori school, that opened in 2020 at Christ the King Catholic School in Richland. It was named for his late wife, Katie Ferguson.

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