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Pacific Dawn – “Love Boat” gone wrong
Sydney and Adelaide readers might have seen the names of Geoff and Loretta Fisher in their local papers recently. They were passengers on the cruise ship Pacific Dawn, on which three crew were diagnosed as having Swine Flu and quarantined. I've been listening to talkback callers castigating these people for returning home and possibly spreading the disease. I spoke to Loretta (one of my oldest and dearest friends) earlier this evening, and later watching a health spokesman on ABCTV News saying that possible flu cases from the boat were being "handled appropriately" made me laugh in anger.
The wedding was a beautiful and simple one. The couple were married on the platform of the Mount Barker railway station, beside the steam train. Loretta's new grandson, dressed in a miniature groomsman's outfit, was ring bearer, and her two bridesmaid daughters glowed with pride in their mother, who made her vows in a porcelainesque flowing gown that she'd won in a competition. After the ceremony everybody boarded the train for a meander through the Adelaide Hills to the fine meal waiting at a Strathalbyn pub (which had a quite workable piano) and then a gloriously unsober ride back home ended the day. Loretta and Geoff headed off to a cottage for their wedding night. Their honeymoon wasn't going to be for a couple of weeks, when they were looking forward to voyaging on a cruise ship to Vanuatu. They were to be quartered on the Honeymoon Deck, along with newlyweds from all over the continent.
On the second day of their nine day cruise, three crew members were isolated from the rest of the voyagers. According to Loretta, none of the passengers were informed. At a pub trivia night in Vanuatu (the photo in the Telegraph was taken on Loretta's camera) one of the new brides was feeling too unwell to finish her $10 Pina Colada, a job my friend completed with gusto, sharing the same straw.
On returning to Sydney after an idyllic trip, the couple disembarked at a pre-arranged time. After an expedition to the Parramatta Shopping Centre, they dined with Geoff's parents and returned to their hotel.
The next morning the Telegraph was at their bedroom door, bearing the headline "Cabin Fever" and the newlyweds learned for the first time of what was happening. Ringing the newspaper for more information resulted in a journo and a photographer rushing to the hotel. Loretta (did I mention she's a nurse?) contacted health authorities to let them know where to find them, and was advised that the couple should isolate themselves (at their own expense) and not travel.
They were told that the decision to do so would be purely voluntary, and that no accommodation or financial assistance would be provided. "The credit cards were empty," says Loretta, "and we didn't have enough money to lock ourselves into the hotel and pay for food to be delivered to our door. We went home - what else could we do?"
The couple rang QANTAS to advise them of the predicament, and the airline gave them permission to make the flight. Loretta tells me that health authorities, when advised of QANTAS and the couple's decision, "were about to go into a meeting and would discuss it there" and would ring them back later in the day. The call was never returned.
On returning to Adelaide Loretta rang her teenage daughter, telling her that she had the choice of staying with friends for a week or joining them in quarantine. The girl waited to give her mother a farewell hug before heading off. A carer at a facility for severely disabled people, she rang her employers to let them know what was going on at home. The managers of the facility gave her the week off with full pay, "just to play it safe".
The next day, after a picture of the honeymooners at the airport had appeared on page five of the Adelaide Advertiser, Loretta received an automatic message, which went directly to her message bank. "If you have any symptoms, press One" the voice intoned, and, having awoken with a blocked nose, she duly complied. She was then advised to present to one of two major Adelaide hospitals for a swab test. On Geoff's motorbike they travelled the twenty-five kilometres to the Flinders Medical Centre.
The triage nurse refused their requests for testing, adamantly insisting that they weren't displaying enough symptoms to warrant the effort. "We had to fight for it," says Loretta, "and after a long argument they gave in and took the swab." The results will be back tomorrow.
Two of the other newlywed couples have symptoms. Loretta tells me that the bride from Perth is feeling particularly unwell.
While waiting for the news, Loretta and Geoff are on their own in more ways than one. The health folks have sent them a package containing some masks, but they're unable to get to their post box to collect it. They’ve had no contact from social workers or offers of assistance from any organisation, least of all Centrelink. They plan to remain in their house for the next week.
Listening to her story, I could understand Loretta's outrage at the way the passengers have been treated. "If they were really serious about this, they should have kept everybody quarantined on the ship, in the harbour. Then they would be isolated, fed and have somewhere to stay. Instead they've let us go without telling us anything or providing any help."