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Cruise death of board member’s father a cautionary tale

A member of the Hays CISD Board of Trustees whose father died on New Year’s Day while on a Caribbean cruise has a warning for others planning a getaway at sea: Take advantage of the air ambulance insurance offered by most cruise lines, and have the number of at least one air ambulance service on speed dial.

Vanessa Petrea’s parents Kathleen and Euel Vines departed from Fort Lauderdale on a Princess Cruise Lines tour of the Caribbean late last year. On New Year’s Eve, they had stopped in St. Thomas and experienced what she called a “magical day” ending with a “champagne toast to health and happiness.”

Later, in their stateroom, her 69-year-old father began to feel ill. “He thought he had food poisoning,” she said, and noted he had had problems with food allergies. “He just felt off. Mom said he looked different and asked him if he had chest pains and he said ‘no.’”

In the cruise ship’s emergency room he underwent tests and it was determined it was a heart issue. They didn’t know until later, she said, that it was an aortic dissection, “basically a tear in the artery above the heart.”

He was put ashore in St. Maarten, the next scheduled port of call, and Petrea’s mother called her at 6 a.m. on New Year’s Day. “People there were very nice but she didn’t know what to do. I jumped into action and called the hospital. What we didn’t know initially is you can’t just get an air ambulance down there, you have to have a heart surgeon and an ICU bed waiting. I was turned down by three hospitals because they didn’t have enough ICU beds or he wasn’t stable enough to be transported.”

Finally, she said, she found the Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, which had a surgeon and an ICU bed. But after making the three-hour flight to St. Maarten, “his numbers were not good enough” for the trip. Petrea said the only way the service agreed to take him is if he was intubated.

At that point, she said her father was struggling to breathe and realized having a tube down his throat was his only chance to make it. “He demanded it. He knew it was his only shot to get off the island alive. My parents were able to say their goodbyes and ‘I love you’ prior to the tube going in.”

Within a few hours his condition seemed to improve and while he could not talk, her father was “calm, able to breath and in no pain.” However, the air ambulance still would not take him, citing a level of oxygen in his blood insufficient for a flight at 40,000 feet.

Desperate, the family contacted a second air ambulance service around 3 a.m. on Jan. 2 and the REVA team arrived in just over four hours.

Medical personnel were in the process of transferring him from the hospital’s machines to the air ambulance’s machines when he passed away. “Some people have this happen and die immediately,” Petrea said. “My understanding is, had this happened in the U.S., he would have gone into surgery immediately and would have been fine.” She also said that, had the cruise line returned her father to St. Thomas, which is a U.S. territory, things might have gone differently.

Petrea said her father was in excellent health and had worked out on the morning of New Year’s Eve.

She recalled on a previous cruise looking at a local hospital and thinking that ending up in a medical crisis under that sort of circumstance would be her worst nightmare.

“I have now lived through my worst nightmare,” she said, adding that the family, already scheduled for a July cruise to celebrate her son’s high school graduation, may rethink the trip. “Every cruise I’ve been on there’s been an emergency. Before you go on one you better make sure you know what can happen.”

At the time of his death, her parents were living “their best life” in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Funeral services will be held on Feb. 1 in The Woodlands.

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