Cruise, coma, recovery
KATHLEEN and Ken Watson have never been happier to be home together in Toukley on the NSW Central Coast after their dual 70th birthday celebration became a COVID-19 cruise nightmare.
“We dreamed about getting home and being with our friends,” Kathleen said of their time on what became “a floating prison”.
“Kenny volunteers with the Merry Makers; he’s in Toukley Senior Citizens; we both sing with Lakes Singers; I teach yoga, and we both go to the gym and I swim.”
Doctors believe this active lifestyle helped Ken live through being hit hard by COVID-19 and on a ventilator in an induced coma. They boarded the Costa
Luminosa in Miami on February 24 for a 31-day “trip of a lifetime” around the Caribbean and Mediterranean.
It was not until March 30 that they escaped on a dedicated mercy flight from Rome to Perth. They thought they were at last home safe but it was about to get even worse.
Ken’s health declined rapidly in hotel quarantine and he was denied urgent medical help for 12 hours, struggling to breathe, despite repeated pleas for help from Kathleen and from the outside by their son and daughter.
The response and treatment of quarantined passengers is being investigated by Australian health officials.
On April 1 Ken advised his wife of 54 years “the doctors are going to put me to sleep and I might not wake up”.
She would wait 12 days to hear his voice and 28 days to see him again. “She just ran in the door and we held each other … it was beautiful,” Ken said of the reunion.
From heaven to hell
Kathleen said the first coronavirus whispers regarding China started before the couple left Australia on February 22. However, Kathleen’s inquiries to the government, her travel agency and travel insurance as to whether it was safe to travel were all positive.
“The first leg around the Caribbean – it was all our dreams come true,” Kathleen said.
After they returned to Miami on March 4 (her birthday) to pick up new American passengers for the Mediterranean leg, their fortunes turned.
The captain announced within days that they would disembark a couple who were “very sick” in Puerto Rico (one would later die).
There was no official mention of COVID-19.
“I would still know that Covid cough anywhere – it has its own sound – there were just more and more people coughing; it was rife,” Kathleen said.
WHO information dated March 4 shows there were 142,823 confirmed cases in China with 2984 deaths, and numbers were growing in Europe, with 2502 cases in Italy and 80 deaths.
The Costa Luminosa had six days at sea after Puerto Rico and Kathleen said those on board with Wi-Fi passed on information of the worsening COVID-19 threat.
Still cruise officials sailed on and said nothing.
Even when the presence of COVID-19 on-board was finally acknowledged, with four more passengers disembarked in the Cayman Islands, Kathleen said staff wearing gloves and cancellation of shows were the only changes to practice.
The more than 1400 passengers were still using the pool, sauna, dancing and eating together but ports began refusing the ship entry.
“About 10–12 days in, they said we had to be quarantined in our cabins,” Kathleen said.
She alleges the ship “went into panic mode” and passengers were at first left without food or water for 28 hours and for 20 hours on another occasion – particularly frightening given Ken is diabetic.
In desperation, stuck in an Italian port with nationalities other than Australians and British having disembarked in France on March 19, Kathleen dangled a sheet from their balcony with a message calling on Scott Morrison to help them, an image captured by the BBC.
Kathleen said the 39 Aussies on board, who nicknamed themselves “the Costa Survivors”, buoyed each other throughout.
She also thanked the Royal Perth Hospital medical team who had “put their own lives at risk to look after us”.
Costa Cruises has offered passengers a replacement cruise but has not replied to a refund request and the Watsons are now part of a class action.
“I’d be fearful going on a ship again, which saddens me because I’ve always loved it since my first trip as a £10 Pom in 1957,” Kathleen said.
“But we will travel … we’ll travel in Australia again.”
Kathleen said that having met at 13, married at 17 and had four children, they had “been through our share of hardships, but we’ve clung together …
“That was the difference with this, being in isolation, we couldn’t even cling to each other.”
Ken is adamant that won’t happen again: “If we go anywhere, we will be together.”
TALKING AGAIN: How Channel 9 News reported the story on April 12.
How it was meant to be … Kathleen and Ken in an on-board Vespa photo set, excited for their Italian adventure.
Kathleen and Ken Watson have adopted shih tzu-chihuahua cross Jarvis to help them enjoy life again three months after setting off on their “once-in-a-lifetime” cruise.
ABOVE: Reunited, Ken and Kathleen Watson hadn’t seen each other for four weeks.