The Lumberjill

Freedom, responsibility and crisis standards of care

By Jen Jackson Quintano
Reader Columnist

North Idaho recently made the national news cycle thanks to the fact that we’re currently rationing health care, operating under “crisis standards of care” at all of our area hospitals. This is not a badge of pride. This is not a good advertisement for what the panhandle is all about. But it is what the panhandle is all about, or so it seems. We value freedom above all else, including responsibility.

We value the freedom to decline a vaccine or mock masks, even if a more responsible approach would yield far less dire results — and far more open hospital beds.

Jen Jackson Quintano. Courtesy photo.

As the parent of a young child, the balance between freedom and responsibility is one I contend with every day. How much responsibility must my daughter exhibit before I grant her more freedoms? How do I balance the drudgery of her responsibilities with the exhilaration of newfound freedoms? 

She knows how to assemble kindling and tinder to build a fire, but am I ready to hand her the match? She enjoys steering the car around our driveway, sitting in my lap, but am I ready to take my own hands off the wheel? The hope, as a parent, is to find a happy balance, avoid injury and disaster, and raise a conscientious and independent child.

Sadly, in North Idaho, we do not seem to inhabit that happy balance. We are not ready for the matches or the steering wheel. We are petulant children intent on burning the whole goddamn thing down because our personal freedoms are more important than the collective well-being. 

Scientists from around the world worked their tails off to create a life-saving vaccine in record time so that the scourge of COVID-19 might become a page in classroom history books. In the meantime, researchers found irrefutable evidence that simply covering one’s face could slow the spread of the virus, saving countless lives. But in North Idaho, we value the freedom to ignore — and even protest — these measures.

I think these are ignorant and selfish choices, but fine. Mine is only one belief among many. As a defender of women’s rights, I’ve stood behind the phrase “keep your laws off my body,” and I suppose that expression can apply here as well. So, let’s not mandate masks and vaccines. Instead, I have another suggestion.

If you have chosen to remain unmasked and not get vaccinated, that is your decision. It is your body, after all. However, I would argue that, in making such a decision, you also forfeit your ability to receive scarce medical care and resources. 

Our health care workers are at a collective breaking point, all of our hospital beds are taken and life-saving equipment is in short supply. If you have chosen not to protect yourself, then you have also chosen not to have an overworked doctor pick up the pieces for you. You have made your bed — and it ain’t one in a hospital — and now you can lie in it.

If we only admitted the vaccinated into our hospitals (and the unvaccinated suffering from non-COVID ailments), we would no longer be dealing with crisis standards of care. Health care workers would no longer have to play God in deciding whose life is most worth saving. These same health care workers could then rest their weary hearts, breathe for a moment (and not through the misery of two masks) and spend some time with neglected loved ones who are also bearing the burden of this latest COVID surge.

I understand my proposal is rather draconian. I understand it is unrealistic. I understand that if I had a loved one who remained unvaccinated, I might feel differently. But I’ve had enough. Something’s got to give.

I have multiple friends and acquaintances whose all-too-necessary surgeries are on indefinite hold due to a lack of health care bandwidth. These people are needlessly suffering and worrying as this preventable crisis drags on. 

My grandparents died of COVID. Both of them. As I write this, it is my grandfather’s birthday. Wilton Jackson was a decorated World War II veteran with a heart as big and adventurous as the desert landscapes he called home. I inherited my entrepreneurial spirit from him. With every success we enjoy in our business, I think of Gramps, wanting to share the excitement with him. I no longer can. It breaks my heart.

Now, with crisis standards of care implemented, one of the last-ditch suggestions from area health care providers is “avoid activities with a high risk of injury.” So, what is an arborist to do? 

All of us who work in this industry here are actively high-risk on a daily basis. If we want to pay the mortgage, we don’t have a choice. We run chainsaws — sometimes 100 feet above the ground — and trust our lives to intricate webs of ropes and rigging. We routinely send trees weighing upwards of 10,000 pounds crashing to the ground. We shove recalcitrant limbs into raging chippers (have you seen Fargo?) and separate trees with strange tensions that want to move in unpredictable and dangerous ways. 

Heretofore, we have always felt some small reassurance that the hospital was nearby; that if the unthinkable happened, highly trained medical professionals could, in time, put us back on our feet.

The summer before COVID hit, three different arborists in our region made headlines for near-fatal accidents. They survived thanks to immediately available life-saving measures. What if an arborist — my husband, one of my employees or colleagues — is similarly injured today? Then what? This isn’t rhetorical. I’m really asking: What will happen? What can we expect? Will the necessary hospital bed be inhabited by someone suffering an entirely preventable illness? Will his or her freedom to suffer said illness impinge upon the hospital’s ability and responsibility to care for all, including someone I love? Or myself?

These are the scenarios that keep me up at night. These are the questions that leave me feeling pissed off and powerless. This is the reality that weighs heavily on me — on many of us. 

My family is directly affected by the decision-making that led to this latest COVID surge. My business is affected. My friends and colleagues are affected. People I love dearly are not and will not receive the care they need. This is unacceptable.

So, North Idaho, go ahead and flaunt your freedom. Run through the trees with your matches and think nothing of your responsibility to the surrounding forest. Fine. We’ll keep our laws off your bodies if you do me two favors: 1.) extend the same courtesy to me, my daughter and all the women I love; 2.) kindly leave our community health care facilities to those who are suffering not from the predictable and preventable, but from the unanticipated and the inconceivable.

Jen Jackson Quintano writes and runs an arborist business with her husband in Sandpoint. Find their website at See more of Quintano’s writing at

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