Rethinking Cruising

In February, cruise ships became an early symbol of how rapidly the coronavirus could spread in confined spaces, when more than 700 passengers on the Diamond Princess became infected as the ship idled off Japan. As social distancing grew more common in February and early March, cruises were among the first activities Americans started avoiding.

David Yaffe- Bellany, NYT

About two weeks ago, Carnival Corporation, which owns a whopping 50% of the cruise industry, reported that it had 25 ships with as many as 6000 passengers in open waters off the Florida coast, awaiting permission to land. Governor DeSantis balked at allowing anyone but Floridians to disembark, moving Congresswoman Donna Shalala to liken his position to the turning away of the ship carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

DeSantis eventually relented and passengers are off the seas, but now it’s the employees who are stranded aboard. These are the waitstaff, the dancers, the room attendants, the masseuses, contractual employees whose contracts are terminating before they will be able to make their way home.

I loved this gentleman’s title….

Now, there are still 100 ships at sea off the American coast, with nearly 80,000 cruise employees stranded aboard.

Dave Sebastian and Costa Paris, Wall Street Journal
This trio performed nightly on our 2018 Caribbean Christmas cruise

My husband and I discovered the pleasure of getting on a boat, unpacking once, and seeing the world from a balcony over the water — several on the Caribbean, a Hawaiian island tour, a perfect Mediterranean journey, our 2019 Atlantic crossing from Florida to Amsterdam. Now, it seems likely that cruising may not recover, not without making a big change in how it handles illness.

It was on that final cruise, in May of last year, that Ray was stricken with bronchitis, for which the boat had no real medication. The ship doctor said that about half the ship was sick, and he had aspirin and lozenges only.

[We stayed in Amsterdam instead of going on a tulip tour just to get Ray antibiotics on May 5, which is why I survived my arterial rupture that day, but let’s not give the boat credit, maybe a higher power.]

Long before the coronavirus shut down the world, we knew we’d never again put ourselves at risk on the seas without a health safety net. The small print on the boarding documents make it very clear that the boat is not responsible for keeping you safe. The choices you make — the amount of alcohol you drink and the stupid things you might do under the influence, let’s say — fall under the “at your own risk” category.

But there is a difference between being stupid and being attacked by an illness. Our boat could offer Ray no help in beating back a crippling bronchitis. We were on our own to find help on land.

Here’s the standard description of what you can expect when you get aboard a cruise ship:

The ship’s medical center contains several beds and is set up to treat minor nonemergency conditions or to stabilize passengers facing life-threatening conditions…the facility should have wheelchairs, a stretcher, back board for spine immobilization, lab capabilities for tests, oxygen, EKG capability, two defibrillators, cardiac monitors and other equipment to gauge vital signs…it is important to view the ship’s medical facility as an infirmary and not as a hospital.

The Cruise Critic

Now, in comes the coronavirus. Although Carnival Corporation (which owns Holland America, on which we sailed last year) says they have ICU beds and ventilators that make some of their ships appropriate back-ups for mainland hospitals, these are limited at best: passengers requiring acute medical care and hospitalization were transferred off Carnival’s Grand Princess in March. We know how Ray suffered in our room, unable to sleep. We cannot imagine the anguish of those suffering with the coronavirus in similar circumstances.

When the Grand Princess sailed back out of the San Francisco harbor, it had on board 1,100 crew. They are part of the 80,000 who are no longer working and not yet home, drifting at sea as the coronavirus lockdown bars them from finding their way. We wish them Godspeed in getting home, but also in finding employment again. The cruise industry has a lot of work to do to earn the public’s trust.

UPDATE: Costa, an upscale Cruise line, is being sued. The lawsuit alleges that the cruise line was negligent in a number of ways such as failing to use reasonable care to provide and maintain a safe voyage — Transatlantic voyage that left Fort Lauderdale March 5 — failing to warn passengers that a prior passenger had shown Coronavirus symptoms. “Simply put, Costa recklessly and intentionally put thousands of passengers through a living nightmare so he could protect its bottom line.” Susan Salisbury, The Palm Beach Post.

Water Keeps Saving My Life

I took a water exercise class today, the first since the one I taught in Boynton Beach some nine months ago. I came out of the pool 4,000 steps richer, with two rings closed on my Apple watch, a new friend, AND a connection to a potential new vascular surgeon when I’m discharged from Shands.

That’s the power of water.

When I my arterial aneurysm ruptured in Amsterdam on May 5, I’d been teaching water fitness for a decade. I made it out of the OLVG Hospital ICU due in large measure to my strength going in. Although ICU-Induced Weakness sapped that strength along with and more than a quarter of my weight by the time I graduated from the ICU to the Gastroenterology Unit, my muscle memory and years of exercise routine were on my side. It was a slow slog nonetheless — ain’t nothin’ easy about physical therapy — but my amazing nurses and physiotherapists had me standing and even walking by the time we flew home.

There was no pool at OLVG, and I longed to be supported by water. I visualized floating as I endeavored to relax in my hospital bed, finding the trigger that is challenging to land on when you’ve been lying there forever. Water worked.

When we returned home in August, I was using a walker and a cane. My therapy at FYZICAL focussed on my lower half, and I made progress. By the end of August, I began working on my core and arms and legs — and floating for real — in our community pool. As my upper body strength returned, I started swimming, eventually lifting my arms out of the water in a pretty good freestyle. My goal was to sail up Victoria’s three flights of stairs when I had my update at Shands on November 8.

Which I did. No walker. No cane. Just me.

In the water, I could walk, then jog, then run. I could shovel heaps of waves. I could box. I knew that every movement I did caused me to burn 150% of the calories the same movement would take on land, due to water’s resistance, but that I’d be supported by bouyancy. Water is win, win.

About a month ago, my husband and I joined a gym. It was a home-coming of sorts — we met at the New York Health and Racquet Club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side 40+ years ago and we have been gym members for most of our married life. We got out of that habit when I taught classes in Boynton Beach most days.

Another silver lining — my illness and recuperation has reconnected both of us to getting healthy. We’re now LA Fitness members.

I decided that Christmas Eve was a perfect time to return to a water exercise class. I knew there was one at 9 on Tuesdays, though there was no music and teacher didn’t thrill me; I’d swum a few times during class (there is a free lane) and felt no pull to return to teaching or to be bossy about how the teacher was doing her job. Good.

So, surprise surprise when today’s class was taught by a sub with music and the same training and teaching approach that I received through the Aquatic Exercise Association. Great class. Oh, and her husband is a vascular surgeon, so she knows how unusual — miraculous, really — it is for me to have recovered as I have.

So, on this eve of a miracle birth, I am once again reminded to be grateful. To have, as my writer colleague Karen Coody Cooper wrote in today’s Palm Beach Post, not an excess of food or drink or debt but an abundance of friendships and love and kindness and contemplation.

To experience Christmas as a holy day. And water as a holy sacrament.

Merry Christmas Eve, everyone.