Monday, October 11, 2010


Although the doctors on board the ship are very good, there are limits to what they can do, in large part because of the lack of sophisticated diagnostic and surgical equipment.  When we were on the fifth day of our northern Pacific crossing, the captain announced that we would be changing course, heading towards Kodiak, Alaska, where we would meet up with a US Coast Guard helicopter to evacuate a passenger for medical reasons.

Naturally, there was much discussion among the passengers.  It had been a long passage, and even with all the programs offered, including, of course, writing classes and book club, many passengers were restless or bored.  The captain had not told us who the ill person was, or what sort of illness required this urgent transfer to a better medical facility, and everyone assumed, naturally, that the person was elderly and probably suffering from a heart attack or respiratory illness.

Only a few people knew otherwise, and I was one of them, because the person in question was Sasha, one of Melissa's closest friends on board, and the godson of Sidney Mobell, a well-known jeweler and amazing artist with precious metals and stone.

This is Sasha, with Melissa and Sidney.

Sasha's family is from the Ukraine, and they lived close to Chernobyl.  When Sasha was five, the family moved to the US, where Sasha's father became  close friends with Sidney.  The father died of cancer at age 44, when Sasha was 19, no doubt due to the radiation caused by the Chernobyl reactor's meltdown.  Sidney, who took his responsibilities as godfather seriously, gave Sasha many opportunities, and offered his home, too, when Sasha needed a place to stay.  Sasha came on the cruise as Sidney's guest, a chance to travel and see something more of the world.

During the Pacific crossing, Sasha became suddenly very ill, and Sidney spent a night awake with him, helping him as best he could.  When there was no improvement the next morning, Sidney took him to the medical center, where the doctors worked with him.  They closed the doors to anything other than emergencies, which I later learned they'd done when they worked on resetting my dislocated ankle.  They do this because even three doctors and two nurses are not enough to handle some emergencies and other patients as well.

Sasha was in a great deal of pain, but they were able to help him, and that evening he went back to the cabin.  The next morning, though, he was worse, and returned to the doctors.  When even the highest dose of morphine they could give him could no longer help him enough, they sedated him and, realizing they could do no more without diagnosing exactly what was wrong, and that they couldn't diagnose with the equipment on board, they informed the captain there was a medical emergency.

All this, of course, was very hard on Sidney, who'd just celebrated his 84th birthday on board, and on Sasha's friends.  Over the few hours it took to reach the rendezvous point where the Coast Guard would meet the ship, some passengers learned that the patient was a young person.  Given the scarcity of young people on board, other than the crew, and everyone knew this patient was not a crew member, and given the amazingly effective rumour mill on board, soon many people knew who it was that was so ill.  And, of course, everyone had a theory of what was medically wrong, and was convinced that they knew all the facts.  I have no idea how this sort of thing happens, but as we all know, rumours, however they begin, take on a life of their own.  No one really knew what was wrong, but the doctors  suspected Sasha's gall bladder was causing at least some of the extreme pain.

Melissa, needless to say, was very distraught.  She could be brave with Sidney, but spent a lot of time alone, or with me and Stryker, her other close friend.  The doctors had let her in during the day, and she said Sasha was very pale and weak.  Now, as we reached the rendezvous point, she pleaded with the doctors to let her see Sasha before he left.  They refused.

Two helicopters and a small airplane arrived.  Both were painted in bright orange and white, for visibility, I assume.  The seas were rough, and once the ship stopped, it was tossed about by the choppy waves.  The transfer was to take place on the bow deck, which is the front section of deck four.  The captain asked that everyone stay well away from the area, including away from the hallways leading to the bow deck.  The plan was for one helicopter to lower a stretcher.  Sasha would be strapped onto this, and then lifted into the helicopter.  A doctor and nurse were on hand to oversee his care while the helicopter returned to Kodiak, where the hospital was waiting.  No one else could go with them, for there was no room.  Sidney very badly wanted to stay with his godson, but the doctors promised that he would get email as soon as they knew anything, and he had to be content with that. 

Since the ship was moving so much, the Coast Guard decided to do a dry run, to make sure the transfer could be done safely.  As well as the rough ocean, there were patches of thick fog, small patches, but very dense.

It had been a long passage, as I said, and a lot of people were very interested in what was happening.  As it was cold out, the best place to observe what was happening was the Crow's Nest bar, on deck 9, and although I wasn't there, I was told it was very crowded.  A few hardy people braved the weather and went outside on the decks that had a view of the bow.

I was in the library, my usual hangout, and while I was interested in how the transfer would take place, I refused to make Sasha's ordeal into an entertainment, and stayed where I was.  Melissa also couldn't watch.  She went back down after the dry run, and the doctors did let her see Sasha as they wheeled him on a gurney out of the medical centre.  He was awake, she told me when she rejoined me, and actually looked much better than he had before, so she felt somewhat better.

The dry run took a while to complete.  In the library, some people pressed themselves against the large windows, and offered a commentary on what they could see, which was a part of the bow deck.  The fog patches seemed to come at the worst moments, just as the helicopter was trying to stay in a stable still position over the bow, and the ship's motion made lowering the stretcher difficult.  The plane, which I think someone said was a C30, (there were several air force vets aboard). circled the ship the entire time.  As the time dragged on, people began to speculate why the plane was there.  The best guess was that it would pick up anyone who fell in the water, but that makes no sense, since a helicopter would be a much more manoeverable source of help.  But, I don't know much about flying and moving people over open water. 

There was some question of whether there was only one helicopter or two, but later we learned that the actual evacuation was filmed, because it appeared on the Coast Guard's website, so the second one probably was there for the cameraman.

After what seemed a very long time, at least an hour, I think, we heard that the Coast Guard and ship's crew decided to go ahead with the transfer.  Sasha was wheeled outside, and lifted successfully into the helicopter.  The aircraft them took off, and we resumed forward motion, moving back toward our original course.

Melissa and I learned later that while many of the people who watched the whole thing were respectful of both Sasha and the process, some saw it as a special entertainment just for them.  A couple of overheard comments: A man, unhappy at how long the dry run had taken, complained while Sasha was being strapped onto the gurney, "I wish they'd hurry up, or we're going to miss dinner."   One woman, after Sasha disappeared into the helicopter turned to her husband and said, sounding annoyed, "I thought he'd wave to us while he was going up.  I wanted to get a picture."

Fortunately, these people were in the minority, and Sasha's friends never learned who they were.

Sasha made it to Kodiak, and was later transferred to Anchorage.  In Anchorage, he was put in the ICU and his condition was upgraded to critical but stable.  That last word, stable, meant a lot to all of us.

Meanwhile, life on board went on.  Sidney received a lot of support from passengers and crew, which helped him a great deal.  People began to joke, in a nice way, that Stryker had better be careful, because bad things happen in threes, and two of Melissa's three closest people on board, Sasha, myself, and Stryker, had had bad things happen.  (I think she was a little relieved when the end of the cruise arrived and Stryker was still healthy.)

Sasha's mother flew up to be with her son.  Sidney had a hard time because the hospital would no longer give him updates on Sasha's condition, since he was not immediate family.  Sasha's sister, though, helped out by sending emailed reports to both Sidney and Melissa.

Sasha slowly improved, and he is now home in California, having made a complete recovery.