Ill Aboard! Dangers of Getting Sick at Sea

Medical records show couple repeatedly pleaded for help from ship's staff.

ByRich Mchugh, Liz Rocca and Stephanie Dahle via via logo
March 03, 2009, 2:36 PM

May 22, 2008 -- Don and Marlene Bryce planned a celebratory cruise in the Mediterranean as a toast to Don's retirement and their 53 years together.

The couple set sail aboard Holland America's cruise ship "Rotterdam."

"We were just enjoying life," said Marlene.

But what was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime ended tragically 12 days into their vacation. Don died on the floor of their cabin.

"They covered him with a blanket and that was the last I saw of him," said Marlene.

Don became ill on the eighth day of their cruise, according to Marlene, other passengers and onboard medical records.

"My parents were on the cruise, but it sounds like the medical staff was on vacation," said the couple's daughter Lori Vaaga.

Using Don's shipboard medical records and the recollections of his wife and two other passengers, reporter Liz Rocca of Seattle's KOMO station pieced together the days leading up to Don's puzzling death.

Medical records show the ship's nurses and Dr. Mark Gibson gave Don medicine to stop vomiting four days before his death. Two days later, Don took a turn for the worse — and so did his medical care, according to his family.

Marlene said she had never seen Don that ill. Early in the morning of their eleventh day on the ship, Marlene called for a nurse to see Don. Records show the nurse came, but took no vital signs — only a temperature — and gave Don medicine to stop his vomiting and diarrhea.

"She looked at him and said, 'You are under quarantine — you are not to leave this room,'" said Marlene.

In the next 24 hours, Marlene asked medical personnel for help four times. Records show she called Dr. Gibson later that morning at 11:20 a.m.

Marlene said Don was weak, confused and had a cough. Gibson told Marlene to keep giving Don medicine to combat allergies and diarrhea.

At 5:30 that evening, Marlene said she was so worried about Don that she went to the infirmary to plead with the doctor to come see Don at their cabin.

Marlene said Gibson told her "he couldn't come because he didn't have the time" and that he would see Don in the morning. The doctor's notes said that Don was improving.

But Marlene said that she never would have gone to the clinic just to report Don was getting better.

"[Marlene] was saying she was getting very concerned because he wasn't getting any better," said Deanna Soiseth, a fellow passenger who was staying in a nearby cabin.

In the middle of the night — on the 12th day of their cruise — Marlene made an emergency call for a nurse.

"His skin was turning dark," she recalled.

The nurse didn't come to the cabin, but Marlene said she gave advice, "She said 'Well, get him something to eat and have him drink water.'"

Two hours later — at 4:40 a.m. — Marlene made her last emergency call. By this time, Marlene said Don was cold and his skin was very dark.

"I said, 'Somebody's got to get up here, I don't like what I'm seeing," she said. The records show a nurse arrived at 4:50 a.m.

The doctor was called at 5:00 a.m., but didn't arrive until 5:35 a.m. — two minutes after Don collapsed, according to records.

"I was probably five feet away from him on a chair and saw him die," said Marlene.

"My mom had to see the man she loved die on the floor in front of her because nobody would listen to her when she tried to say he was getting worse and worse," said Vaaga.

The autopsy report said Don died of a heart attack. It also noted that Don had pneumonia.

The Bryce family believes dehydration triggered Don's heart attack, questioning why he was never given IV fluids — especially since he had a history of heart trouble.

Dr. Mark Gibson couldn't be reached for comment, but in a written statement, Holland America said the medical staff was in frequent contact with the Bryce's and did nothing wrong. "We have determined the medical staff acted in a proper and professional manner," it stated.

While Marlene disputes Holland America's claims, she said she is determined to move forward — and make sure no one else experiences a similar agony.

"This should not have happened," she said, "And I don't want it to happen to anyone else."

Under maritime law, cruise lines aren't responsible for the actions of the doctors they hire, since the doctors are independent contractors.

Fellow passenger Soiseth said she thought "this couldn't possibly happen, especially when we were told there is good medical care on the ship."

There are precautions that passengers can take when traveling on cruise ships.

Before you leave, see if your insurance or credit card covers emergency evacuations. If you become sick in a foreign land or on the high seas, some may help you evacuate. Most, however, do not.

Travel with complete medical information — including the names and doses of all your medications — and your personal doctor's phone number.

Pack all prescription drugs and medicines in adequate amounts for the trip in a carry-on bag, with a list of their names and the dosage of each drug.

Consider buying travel insurance — and make sure it has medical evacuation and emergency treatment in foreign facilities.

Ask about medical staff and facilities aboard your vessel. A crucial question is: does the doctor speak English?

Those with a chronic condition should notify the ship's doctors and carry medical records, including a recent E.K.G. if pertinent.

If you do get sick while on a cruise ship, consider disembarking at the nearest port for medical treatment, but realize that once you do, you risk assuming the expense of getting yourself home … and not getting reimbursed for the remainder of your vacation.

Click here to read a full statement by Holland America regarding Don Bryce's death.

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