This was not my first time getting sick on a cruise ship. In 2007, I got seasick my first day at sea and had to leave the dining room and go to bed just as my lobster tail arrived. Jim dutifully stayed behind to consume my portion. Fortunately, I got a patch from a friend and within 24 hours I was fine. In 2011, I came down with an abscessed tooth in Barcelona, Spain, before boarding the ship for a Mediterranean cruise which resulted in my first trip to the medical department on board for an antibiotic and pain medication. The experience cost around $250 since neither medical or dental insurance would cover it as it was a dental event and I saw a medical doctor because there wasn’t a dentist on board.
This time I came down with gastroenteritis. I’ll spare you the details of my symptoms because you really don’t want to know. (Trust me on this.) I will tell you, however, that I am a constant hand washer while on a cruise ship. In addition, ship staff, standing sentinel outside every restaurant onboard, proclaim, “Washy, washy” while they spray passenger hands with antibacterial sanitizer and I am always cooperative. I assume I must have touched something that was contaminated and then touched my mouth without washy washy in between which allowed me to contract this scourge. Or maybe I ate or drank something off the ship in Mexico that contained the organism that took me down.
I waited to report my illness thinking and hoping it would pass. My symptoms started about 10 am and by 4 pm I was still getting worse rather than better and finally decided it was time to seek medical attention. The nurse asked a number of questions before the doctor examined me, including whether I had used any of the public restrooms. I now have an idea how the doctor who rode the subway and went to a bowling alley before he showed symptoms of Ebola must have felt. Believe me, I felt like a pariah when they dispatched a team to sanitize the public bathroom after I confessed to using it.
The paperwork that had to be completed in the medical department was voluminous. My husband, who takes paperwork very seriously, interrogated me as I lay in the intensive care room of the sick bay. Jim recorded my every movement on and off the ship and every morsel of food that went into my mouth. Fortunately, I’m a creature of habit and follow pretty much the same routine in both food and movement (no pun intended) so even in my delirium I was able to recreate my previous 4 days fairly accurately. (The word delirium is an exaggeration but when someone is badgering me when I’m VERY sick, some degree of hyperbole should be allowed.)
The worst part is that I missed the second most important event of the cruise. Obviously, the most important thing on a Panama Canal cruise is seeing the Panama Canal. The only excursion we signed up for, however, was the aerial tram and zip line through the rain forest in Costa Rica. I’ve always said I don’t have a bucket list because if I want to do something, I get right on it. But if I had a bucket list, the one thing that would be on it is zip lining. As a recovering acrophobe, this is something I think I can now do with a high level of enjoyment. Another excursion option was the swinging bridge but I didn’t think I could handle height combined with swaying on a rope bridge.
I ended up being quarantined in my room for 24 hours upon discharge from sick bay that evening and the only view from my window was of another ship rather than Costa Rica. The meds I got from the doctor worked quickly and I felt much better the next morning so I called the medical department to see if I could be released early to go on the excursion but they said 4 pm was the earliest I could leave my room. Meanwhile, my husband and my friend were living my dream. Lori wasn’t originally sure she really wanted to zip line but she was game to join us. Jim had no hesitation at all. Rick recently had shoulder surgery so he declined early on. So, off Jim and Lori went while I stayed behind feeling sorry for myself.
I also missed a meet-up with friends who were in this port on the ship my window faced. We’d met a couple from Kentucky while we were in South Africa in February, 2014 and discovered we would be on cruise ships going opposite directions with a common stop in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. We planned to meet up after our zip lining excursion, hopefully around 4 pm. The doctor called to check on me in the morning and said I was quarantined until 5 pm. NOoooo! Passengers had to be back on board at 4:30 for our departure. I explained my plan to meet friends on the other ship with no way to communicate and begged for an early release. The doctor agreed to call back at 3 pm to reassess my situation.
At 3:00, the doctor called to explain that I couldn’t get off the ship at all because it would expose the other ship to gastroenteritis. They would call at 5 pm to release me after we set sail. I had to remain in quarantine which was a bitter pill to swallow… although totally understandable.
When the doctor called soon after 5 and asked, “Have you been waiting by the phone?,” I replied, “Wherever I go in my room, I’m by the phone.” She released me. I checked with my sources on the ship that evening and learned there were 13 other people on board with gastroenteritis.
If you’re interested in the numbers of GI illnesses reported on cruise ships, the CDC tracks this data and you can find it here. Have you been on a cruise ship hit by gastroenteritis or norovirus? Have you personally had either one? If so, please share your story in comments.
For your enjoyment, I’m including some of Lori and Jim’s photos from the aerial tram and zip lining.