How one man’s medical crisis collided with Minnesota’s hospital bed crunch

A smiles for a photo
Bob Cameron.
Courtesy of Julie Lindegard

Bob Cameron of Hallock, Minn., served in the U.S. Army in the 1950s. 

But as Kittson County's Veterans Services Officer from 2001 until 2017, Cameron's commitment to those who served lasted long into his retirement years. 

“He was so dedicated, helping out widows' families, finding every benefit he could for them,” said his daughter, Julie Lindegard. 

In recent days, Lindegard, her mother and siblings have been hearing from strangers about Cameron. 

“We have received so many calls, emails, texts, messages on Facebook, of how he's touched people's lives,” she said. “He was just really a one-in-a-million guy.”

Cameron died on Oct. 13 from a gastrointestinal bleed at Sanford Medical Center in Fargo, N.D. after waiting two days at a small hospital in far northwest Minnesota for an ICU bed to open up at a larger facility. He was 87.

Lindegard believes her dad would still be alive if there had been an ICU bed open sooner.

While there's no way to say definitively if Cameron would have survived with an earlier transfer, what Lindegard and her family are living through offers a glimpse of what state officials are warning of as hospitals reach capacity. 

With COVID-19 patients filling short-staffed hospital beds, Health Department Commissioner Jan Malcolm said during a recent news conference that people with other urgent health care problems may suffer because they can't get the care they need, when they need it. 

The hospital bed crunch is caused by a mix of patients seeking care they delayed during the pandemic, and a high number of COVID hospitalizations — compounded by health care staffing shortages. 

“It means care is threatened for heart attacks, strokes, traumas, everything that people depend on the health care system to be there for them immediately,” said Malcolm. “And that's just not something that we can take for granted.”

‘Nowhere to take him’

On Oct. 10, Lindegard says her dad was admitted to Kittson Healthcare in Hallock, Minn., for the gastrointestinal bleed. 

Adding to the chaos of the situation, Cameron tested positive for COVID-19 when he arrived at the hospital, in spite of having received three doses of the vaccine. Lindegard said the infection didn't worsen her dad's condition, but it prevented her, her mother and her siblings from being with him at the hospital.

Hallock’s hospital is a 15-bed critical access hospital about 30 minutes south of the Canadian border. There are no ICU or surgical beds there, but Cameron needed one. 

“There was nowhere to take him,” said Lindegard. “They did everything here to keep him alive."

Cameron was losing blood, complicated by the fact that he was taking blood thinner for unrelated heart issues.  

“Two different times they had highway patrolmen get blood up here from Fargo for him because our small hospital only keeps so many units here,” Lindegard said. 

For two days, Cameron's care team did all they could to keep him stable while trying to transfer him to a higher level of care. 

“Finally, Tuesday morning, the nurse was on the phone with Sanford in Fargo,” said Lindegard. “And she was laying it on the line and saying this is what's going on. What in the hell are we supposed to do?”

Cameron was moved to Sanford Health's facility in Fargo that day. But even after surgery and receiving nearly half the units of blood products the hospital had on hand, it was clear Cameron wasn't going to make it. 

“We just said, ‘Please just make sure he's comfortable,’” Lindegard said. 

Cameron's nurse called Lindegard the moment her dad died. 

“She was holding his hand telling [him], ‘It's okay to go.’ And she said he was not in pain and he was at peace,” she said. 

A man in uniform salutes.
Bob Cameron attended the dedication of the Kittson County Veterans Memorial in June of 2015.
Courtesy of Julie Lindegard

Unpredictable transfers

Kittson Healthcare CEO Gabriel Mooney said patient transfers have been unpredictable during the pandemic.

Mooney says patients typically go to Grand Forks, N.D. But they look as far as St. Cloud and Duluth, too.

“Most of the time, it's normal for us,” he said. “Other times it's a few hours, sometimes it gets to be the better part of a half a day to a day to two days. And those are fairly rare.”

Mooney said that the pandemic has laid bare staffing shortages that have exacerbated the hospital bed crunch during this wave of the pandemic that also trickles down to his small hospital.

“It’s a broken record, but especially in health care is our staffing,” Mooney said. “The reason [bigger hospitals] are not able to take the patients when we need them to is due to staffing.”

At the Kittson hospital, Mooney says staff have dropped out of the workforce because they’ve retired, or they’re just burnt out. Finding replacements is challenging.

“For a small organization like us, our bench isn't real deep,” he said. 

Bob Cameron's funeral will be held Oct. 22. 

In the days leading up to the ceremony, Lindegard is thinking a lot about how divided the country is — over the pandemic, over vaccines, over politics. She says her dad had an uncanny way of bridging those gaps, bringing people together with a joke or a kind gesture. 

“And truly our world right now needs more Bob Camerons,” she said. 

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