By Charles Segebrecht
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story” ~Orson Welles
This story of Susan and Wayne Hidalgo begins in July of 2019, when they knew warmer weather would be a major criterion for their January 2020 cruise destination decision. With a focus on the sunny Pacific rim, Asian ports of call began to becon–Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan. . . . As experienced cruisers, each could begin imagining warm ocean air and views from their private cabin balcony, feeling secure on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
The adventuresome couple have cruised every year since 2000, some years up to four cruises. They have visited every continent, including Antarctica., “We’re running out of places!” Wayne claims. They enjoy meeting new people, and what better place than the trappings of a cruise ship–right?
Despite thorough trip planning, unexpected obstacles can stem from curious exotic foods, uncomfortable weather, money hassles, incomplete communications, closed attractions, questionable personal safety, undependable transportation, wrong directions, barely adequate lodging–even illness.
Prior to their departure for another cruise, Wayne completes an already scheduled total physical validating his excellent health. He has rarely used antibiotics and has never stayed a night in a hospital. Susan, too, is in great shape. Their positive health feedback is one more reason to celebrate New Year’s Eve as they depart the USA via United to Singapore for four-days before boarding their cruise ship for a carefully researched, four-week cruise.
January 2, 2020
Arriving in Singapore, Wayne and Susan check into the Fullerton Hotel (5-star, of course!). They have visited Singapore before, so begin to cruise, on foot, through familiar territory, enjoying life and a warmer climate, with no knowledge of a growing health concern in Wuhan, China.
January 6, 2020
The Carnival Cruise Line in Doral, Florida, is one of the largest vacation companies in the world and owns Princess Cruises. One of the Princess’s vessels is the Diamond Princess with a capacity for 2,670 guests and 1,100 crew ($500 million US to construct). Susan and Wayne have chosen back-to-back cruises; the first, a fourteen-day cruise from Singapore to Yokohama (Tokyo’s port), with scheduled stops in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Osaka. This passage’s guest list is comprised primarily of Germans, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and a few Japanese. Susan and Wayne settle into a spacious room with a balcony on the starboard side of the ship, a room they will eventually occupy for both legs of their cruise.
They find the ship very comfortable; designed and appointed primarily for Japanese with befitting meals and sushi bars, typical communal baths, and toilets with too many buttons–all perfect for their adventuresome spirits. They see nothing in their available news about growing health concern in China. Nothing about how China’s health authorities had confirmed on December 31, 2019, that dozens of cases of COVID-19 were being treated–well before the Hidalgos had boarded the Diamond Princess.
January 20, 2020
Arriving in Yokohama, Japan, a turnover occurs in the passenger manifest for Susan and Wayne’s second part of their cruise. Over a thousand Japanese passengers board–over half the ship’s capacity– consisting of happy grandparents, many children and their parents. Their obvious festiveness is a function of this being a holiday cruise for these close families now onboard for the next fifteen cruising days. The ship will travel as far south as Hong Kong, returning to Yokohama, Japan. At the end of this second cruise leg, Wayne and Susan are expecting to fly back home from Tokyo, only 24.5 miles from Yokohama.
The Japanese culture is community oriented, just as Wayne remembers the United States being in the 50s. Groups of ten gather at large lunch tables, laughing and singing and celebrating–something. Susan and Wayne are relishing–actually, loving it.
Boarding with the new passengers is an eighty-year-old man traveling just to the scheduled stop of Hong Kong. The cruise line allows such passage. The Diamond Princess sets sail, travels to three more ports in southern Japan and then two more in Vietnam before reaching Hong Kong. No one is aware this individual is immediately tested and confirmed to have COVID-19 when arriving in Hong Kong. (The Princess Cruise Lines is notified sometime later.)
In the meantime, Susan and Wayne continue cruising to Taiwan and for a stay in the port of Okinawa (where some of the oldest people in world live) before returning to Yokohama. During this time and in typical cruising fashion, they systematically dine with an American woman and her mother and another American couple from California. The husband works at a university, likes computers and is especially fond of 50s and 60s cars. He and Wayne hit it off. Neither Susan nor Wayne knows China has locked down Wuhan on January 23, 2020.
February 2, 2020
Four days before arriving in Yokohama, rumors are circulating. The subject of the older gentlemen comes up at their dinner table. The husband from California says he had been on a bus with the older gentlemen during a cruise line shore excursion before the man disembarked in Hong Kong. Susan and Wayne had not participated in this port visit. Wayne isn’t concerned.
Unbeknownst to the Hidalgos, they remain in a vacuum of needed information. What little they now know is slowly seeping in from CNN, MSNBC and Fox.
February 3, 2020
Three days before arriving in Yokohama, the group is again at dinner. Astute Wayne notices his new acquaintance is less gregarious. The friend leaves the dining table for a while, returns and eats little. Reflecting later, Wayne recognizes he and Susan were once-removed from direct contact with a COVID-19 infected individual by eating meals with someone who had direct contact. It was the beginning of what we now define as a COVID-19 community.
February 4, 2020
The day before arriving in Yokohama, Wayne is witness early in the day to their mealtime mate still behaving atypically. Later the same day, the Japanese Health Ministry boards the Diamond Princess, visiting rooms. They eventually visit Susan and Wayne’s and confirm the Hidalgos have had meals at the same table with the less gregarious husband and meal companion. Wayne balks at being tested by the health ministry because he is still feeling just fine; he has even been monitoring their own temperatures. The authorities return, and Wayne gives in to swab testing. He truly believes they will waltz right through this.
All passengers are quarantined this very day to their respective rooms based upon whatever the health ministry has found. Still, there are no reported cases of COVID-19 in all of Japan.
February 5, 2020
The cruising ends upon arrival in Yokohama. The vessel immediately docks with starboard side to port–convenient for Susan and Wayne because of their balcony view of nearby Tokyo, of Mount Fuji in the distance and of the growing number of reporters (over 100) on shore behind an obvious line of demarcation. Wayne has by now heard of other ships being quarantined in the world–but offshore–unlike them. He attributes this anomaly to the Japanese respecting their own–over a thousand onboard.
The ship occasionally returns to sea to replenish its water supply for the desalination system but always returns to port. Susan once exclaimed, “Look, Wayne! You are on Australian TV!” Wayne had been waiving from their balcony to the crowd of reporters below.
Gloved and masked cabin porters bring them three banquet meals each day. Susan and Wayne leave trays in the hall upon finishing meals. After twenty-four hours, they still have not received feedback on their testing.
One ship room in the inboard area (no windows) has four teenage daughters. To lend a helping hand with their sanity, the ship allows them out to an area of the promenade deck. When Wayne asks why they switch their deck location from time to time, the ship staff say they always try to cleverly keep the girls downwind.
February 6, 2020
On the second day in port, Wayne witnesses from his balcony perch ten passengers disembarking into ambulances. Wayne assumes only ten people have tested positive. He is wrong and will soon learn Susan and he have also tested positive. The walkway to the ambulances is completely encapsulated; even ambulances are covered. All help is fully garbed.
February 7, 2020
On the third day in port, Susan and Wayne are instructed, along with eight others, to pack a small carry-on within the next two hours for an overnight. Luggage is to be left in cabin rooms. (Interestingly, they still have not received their luggage as of March 24.)
Susan and Wayne continue to see themselves as lucky. They are transported to Tokyo’s Ebara Hospital (its specialty: infectious diseases). They are in the second wave of people removed from the ship, and they still feel fine, displaying no conspicuous symptoms. Wayne demands Susan and he travel together in the ambulance and have a shared room at the hospital They are a team, he explains, still traveling together; everyone obliges. Neither is scared upon arriving to the hospital. Wayne attributes this to simply being naive to the new virus and having no associated symptoms.
The hospital is the most efficient Wayne has ever seen, albeit the first he has ever spent a night in. Gowned and masked staff clean every surface thoroughly each day; if close to either Susan or Wayne, they wear an additional face shield. Wi-Fi is initially not available in their hospital room; nor is TV. In Japan, a patient must go to the commissary and purchase a card to plug into the television for it to function; same goes for the use of the room’s refrigerator. Other oddities to Americans familiar with hospitals: patients must bring their own soap, shampoo, gowns, towels, snacks and food. Eventually, Wi-Fi becomes available in their room and WhatsApp is downloaded, allowing Susan to freely talk daily with their children, grandchildren and very much-appreciated friends, keeping her spirits high.
Blood and x-rays are taken upon arrival to the hospital and soon confirm each has contracted coronavirus. Their doctor is in her thirties, and over time it seems to Susan and Wayne they are her only patients. Her advice to getting well early on is to rest and allow their own immune systems to function. She also says, “If the virus manifested itself with more severity, we will talk about it.”
An HIV-related drug is mentioned as a possibility. On hearing this, Wayne worries the situation could be getting serious. (That drug is never needed.) A representative from the US Embassy in Tokyo visits early on and provides much needed clothing for each–even North Face shirts for Wayne.
If they have to wait it out, this facility and staff could not be better, Wayne concedes. The staff and doctor typically bow upon entering their shared room. Four vitals are taken three times a day with lots of respectful bowing.
February 10 to February 27, 2020
After two days in the hospital. Wayne begins to show some of the typical virus symptoms. Susan does not, and in fact, never displays any. Wayne’s fever comes on gradually but never goes higher than 99.5 degrees. He experiences aching and lack of appetite, but no headache or shortness of breath. His x-rays show mild pneumonia, and he generally feels lousy. A note of inspiration: Susan and Wayne attribute the relatively mild cases each experience to their long-term, healthy lifestyle.
It is explained to them an identifiable marker in their individual blood work can be used to monitor the severity of their infection. It will register a trackable level defining a direction the infection is taking. Wayne’s sampling is taken a total of five times, showing initially a rising infection trend. Prior to his fourth sampling, mention is made again of the experimental HIV drug. His next to last sampling, however, shows the virus at the three-week mark has dropped dramatically; no HIV drug required. Susan’s marker level continues to always remain low.
Susan and Wayne receive three meals a day. Wayne is animated while explaining the hospital’s cuisine: “Gourmet by anyone’s standards; udon noodles, unbelievably fresh fruits–wow!” Their meals are always brought into their hospital room, which fortunately feels spacious with its broad view of Tokyo.
Wayne and Susan settle into an eventual routine with WhatsApp communications from the home front, meals, room cleaning, Netflix favorites and of course, the vitals. Periodicals arrive several times, indirectly, from a daughter who has a friend living in Japan. A very efficient medicine is the plethora of mailed grandkid pictures (all nine)–more essential than anything else, even the five lbs. of chocolates! Wayne begins to feel better after the initial twelve days in the hospital.
Finally, a negative test for each on or about February 27! The next test is again negative, although the results arrive late due to the elevated number of tests now being administered. The third tests for each on the 28th are once again negative–reason to celebrate! All COVID-19 tests have been provided by the World Health Organization.
February 29, 2020
“Be ready to leave in two hours.” Leaving the hospital, a staff member says they may go anywhere in Japan they wish. “It felt fabulous!” beams Susan. “What about an invoice?” inquires Wayne. The hospital’s words: “Don’t worry about it.” Susan and Wayne pack what little they have between themselves and venture down a long hallway. The entire nursing staff are waiting for them with masks on; upon their approach, they all take off their masks and clap and hug each–very emotional for all. Susan has developed a special rapport with the nursing staff. Throughout their ordeal she believed if she took care of them, they would take good care of Wayne and her.
As they walk out of the hospital, neither can believe it. Susan exclaims, “This is unbelievable – fresh air!” Before they can head to the States, the CDC requires six additional hurdles, which include undergoing another nasal swab and remaining in Japan for a minimum of five more days. Only then can they get a CDC clearance letter canceling their present state of “Do Not Board,” allowing access to an international airline. Princess Cruise Lines, in the interim, sends a concierge from Anchorage, Alaska, to make sure they are treated right and have everything they need, such as a comped stay at the New Prince Hotel for the required five days, as well as making all travel accommodations – including covering business class upgrades.
On their first day in Tokyo out of the hospital, they do what they do here–walk. They walk for approximately three-and-one-half miles, and with each step Wayne begins to feel old football injuries surface. (He has since returned to his old self after being on his back for so long–pain free.) On the initial walking excursion, they purchase a Tokyo souvenir: a new suitcase. And their world keeps getting better –continued healing with the arrival of their son, Merrick, in Tokyo, as planned. They relax, eat and continue walking together and getting stronger. A first meal in a restaurant consists of what each had been hungry for: a hamburger and fries.
These improving walkers notice something on an outing in a La Jolla-like neighborhood, triggering what Wayne had thought of at the beginning of their adventure so long ago: the close-knit Japanese community and how they care about each other. Sidewalks everywhere have center lanes of textured concrete for the vision impaired with additional identifying lines warning when turns are imminent. Wayne imagines the millions of Yen spent for such caring.
Arresting an imagined need, Wayne reaches out to Quivira friend, Dr. John Weigel, finding him fishing in Texas. Dr. Weigel knows everyone at KU Med. and recommends an infectious disease doctor for backup if found to be necessary. The referred doctor awakens Wayne at 2 a.m. Tokyo time to tell him, “Stay away from hospitals unless necessary!” Soon, Susan and Wayne breeze through Japan’s customs and immigration – without a single scrutinizing look!
March 5, 2020; A Happy Ending
Their arrival in Minneapolis immediately begins to resemble a familiar movie to Wayne. “The customs and immigration officers know who we were but feign ignorance.” Susan and Wayne are directed to a door marked “CDC.” The officials in the small and crowded office state, “Your passport says you’ve been gone for approximately sixty days; have you been on a cruise?” They certainly know the answer, but continue on with, “Papers, please.” Right out of Casablanca! Susan and Wayne hand them their DNB clearing letters, and off they go on a final flight.
Probably the last one
Each agree to the closure of traveling on large cruise ships. But a river cruise? Possibly! They will definitely travel again; it’s in their blood. Wayne envisions taking a European road trip next with a Michelin map in his copilot’s hands. They are an invincible team. And see the commitment here in print: three grandchildren have yet to take the traditional, international Hidalgo trip each is promised. Wayne and Susan admit they are grateful for the outcome and clearly recognize how much closer each is to their children and to all nine grandchildren. Susan says, “It’s a blessing”; “Contentment” Wayne describes it.
Now sitting in front of their glass wall overlooking their back yard of sixty acres of nature–with the ship out or their minds–each is contented, healthy and feeling fortunate to be getting back to their regular routines at Lake Quivira. Our community is thrilled to have them return whole from their adventuresome cruise. Emails, black box notes and mailed letters of welcome and good cheer have poured in. Sixteen golfing buddies are awaiting Wayne’s return to the LQ links; Wayne promises, “Soon!”
And here, we find an appropriate stopping point—a stopping point with a very happy ending, indeed—to the story of Wayne and Susan’s experience within the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bloomberg News Update; March 17, 2020
Food service employees aboard the Diamond Princess hastened the spread of Coronavirus on the stricken cruise ship, ultimately contributing to more than 700 cases, according to a government study. [Some deaths have resulted.]
First cases were detected among passengers, the virus spread to members of the crew, according to the study published Tuesday in the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. On February 2, a food-service worker became the first known case among crew, and such employees accounted for ¾ of early laboratory confirmed cases among staff. The report said those workers prepared food for other members of the crew.
The report highlights the risk of exposure in crowded settings like ships, gyms and concert venues.
When passengers were asked to go into a two-week quarantine in their cabins, crew members continued regular duties and delivered meals to guests. The workers remained in their cabins when they weren’t on duty.