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Holland America Line Oosterdam
Circle Hawaii Cruise from San Diego
October 22-November 5, 2011

by Karen Segboer

Recent news out of South America regarding dozens of passengers falling ill aboard Holland America Line’s Veendam had me thinking about our own trip a few weeks ago, and the need to be prepared for just about anything when traveling, especially a long way from home. Most times everything goes swimmingly and everybody comes home safe and sound. But like just about everything else in life, one must be prepared for curveballs.

Onboard Holland America Line’s Oosterdam Hawaii Circle cruise a few weeks ago, I was once again reminded why we always purchased travel insurance and why everybody, especially those traveling outside the United States or on cruise ships should, too. Cruise Diva has written about this in the past, but when you personally witness a medical evacuation at sea, you really begin to understand how important this becomes, for your sanity and for your pocketbook. Medical evacuations from a cruise ship such as the kind I’m about to describe can cost the passenger up to $20,000. This is generally not covered by your usual medical/health insurance policy in effect back home on a normal non-cruise day. The cost of such evacuations and indeed medical care onboard a cruise ship is much more expensive than you can imagine. It also cost our Captain and Holland America Line about $250,000 in extra fuel alone.

A screen shot of the onboard nautical video display showing Oosterdam leaving Hawaii, then turning to go back, then turning to continue our trip back home, then turning again to evacuate sick passengers. Finally, underway (arrow) and returning to San Diego, the port of disembarkation.

We were on our way back from a great time seeing the Hawaiian islands, and we had four more days at sea before hitting San Diego and disembarking. At about 10am on Monday, Oct 31, 2011, the Oosterdam made a U-turn. We noticed this only because we were walking past one of the ship’s nautical video displays outside one of the public rooms while on our way to an enrichment lecture. About an hour later, Captain Johannes Baijens came on the ship’s public address system and announced that a passenger was critically ill and needed to be taken back to the big island of Hawaii at Hilo and a hospital there. This was, at that time, about twelve hours to our west, the ship having left its last port of call at Maui the afternoon before. The ship had to be within one hundred miles for a helicopter to do a medical evacuation. Then, about an hour later, the Captain made another announcement that the passenger was determined to be in good enough condition to continue in the ship’s sick bay/hospital until we reached our next port, which would have been a brief stop in Ensenada, Mexico before going back to San Diego, where we originally embarked. Good news for everybody. We were literally back on course and back on schedule, and the passenger was apparently not critical, or maybe even much better than originally thought.

Then, at about 10pm that evening, after everyone had settled in after dinner, the Captain once again made an announcement that the sick passenger would indeed need to be evacuated after all. We would be turning around once again and would proceed to Hilo where the Coast Guard would coordinate a helicopter transfer of the sick passenger. We travelled back to Hawaii overnight, wondering how much off schedule we would be and hoping for a good outcome for the sick passenger.

By 9am the next morning, Tuesday, Nov 1, 2011, two more passengers had become ill enough that they also needed to be evacuated to shore. The upper forward decks were cleared of passengers, as was the inside forward Crow’s Nest and Explorers Internet Cafe. Everyone was asked not to take flash photos so as not to disturb the rescue workers. A Coast Guard plane circled the ship coordinating with the Captain, who was also on the phone with Holland America Line in Seattle, Washington. Two Coast Guard rescue helicopters arrived on the scene shortly, lowering “cradles” for passenger transport. A Coast Guard rescuer was lowered to assist with loading and airlifting. This was done twice and the first chopper took off toward Hilo, to return one more time about ninety minutes later for the third sick passenger. Meanwhile, the sea plane continued to circle, continued to coordinate with our ship. All went well, and we were underway again about thirty minutes after the final helicopter left the area with the last of the three sick passengers. Of course, this threw a huge monkey wrench into everyone’s plans to get back home again. The cruise line would also have to delay the start of the Oosterdam’s next cruise, a Mexican Riviera trip to Puerto Vallerta and Cabo San Lucas. This has to be a major disruption for so many people; still everyone’s thoughts were with those three sick passengers and their families and friends left back here onboard the ship.

Once underway, another announcement from Captain Baijens about rescheduling flights and further port arrival information was given. Everything seemed to have been arranged seamlessly by HAL. Passengers who had booked flights through the cruise line would be rebooked by the front desk, and they would be receiving new documents in their cabins shortly. Those who booked flights independently (like us) could use free internet onboard and also free phone calls until Thursday Nov 4 to make alternate flight plans. This worked out well for most.

For the remainder of the trip, the Captain, during his mid-morning briefing, gave the ship an update from Hilo as to the sick passengers’ conditions. All were doing well, and their friends and families would be flying back to them soon, as soon as we hit land again. As the identities of the family members left behind on board became known, we all began to check with them if we met on deck. How were their loved ones in the hospital doing? What was the word from Hilo?

We later found out that Oosterdam’s onboard staff and crew donated seven pints of blood for one of the stricken passengers. A total of twelve vacationers were hospitalized on our trip, either taken by helicopter that morning back to Hawaii or taken off the ship at one of the four islands in the state of Hawaii that we visited.

Holland America has a reputation for carrying a lot of older passengers on their ships and taking very good care of them, too. This was a scheduled two week cruise, it started after school had begun for the year (there were only three kids onboard, all pre-schoolers); these are all earmarks of a cruise with older travelers. Still, there seemed to be a LOT of chronically sick, very much older folks on our ship with us, even more so than an average HAL cruise, according to the Captain. People with wheelchairs, walkers, scooters, canes, oxygen, people who moved very slowly and sometimes looked very much out of touch with their surroundings and whereabouts that they might have been dangerous to themselves and others.

As a result of this evacuation event, many of us out on deck the next few days were talking about all of this. We talked with families onboard who had taken elderly relatives to Hawaii as a “final wish” or had family members in their nineties who had to see the ship’s doctor at least once during our trip or even go to one of the land-based hospitals on their own while in Hawaii. We had a discussion about any potentially serious marine emergency and how the crew could evacuate the ship quickly and safely with so many handicapped passengers onboard. We also wondered if it was a good idea to have a ship full of people who were so physically needy. Based on the way Holland America handled all of this on our trip, I’m sure they have it all worked out, and they are ready to go with emergency plans if need be.

Don’t get me wrong. Although this was a cruise with very much older and apparently physically delicate people onboard, something like this could happen to any one of the healthiest among us on any other cruise line any place in the world. Broken bones, a burst appendix, an acute kidney stone attack, heart attackthe list goes onof things that happen fast and without warning. It’s bad enough to be sick or injured at any time without having to worry about the costs of care away from home, out of the country or at sea.

So I leave you with three important words: Buy trip insurance!

Photos: Oosterdam bow © Linda Coffman; Oosterdam video display & evacuation courtesy of Karen Segboer

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