Fred and Connie Claussen’s honeymoon cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas ended on a tragic note. During the voyage, Fred suffered a massive heart attack. The Serenade’s medical staff treated him and then diverted the ship to St. Kitts, where he was transferred to a hospital.
The Claussens are no strangers to tragedy. Fred lost his wife of 51 years to cancer, and Connie’s husband of 48 years died of heart failure. The retired couple, who live in Macon, Ill., met and married last year but postponed their honeymoon until February.
What’s different about this latest calamity — which ended their vacation and will most likely shorten Fred’s life — is that it may have been entirely preventable.
The ship’s decision to drop the Claussens off in St. Kitts proved to be a bad one, according to Connie. Conditions at Joseph Nathaniel France General Hospital were “nothing short of deplorable,” she says. The floors were covered with dried blood and vomit, and the emergency room frequently ran out of supplies. On several occasions, Connie had to take a cab to a pharmacy to buy medication for her ailing spouse.
“Absolutely nothing was done to improve Fred’s condition while we were in St. Kitts,” she says. “The doctor would come in and look at him once a day. She would not communicate with Fred’s doctors in the States.”
Fred languished in the hospital for five days without being given a stent, which aggravated his condition and permanently damaged his heart, Connie says. And then came the final insult: The hospital demanded $1,100 for its services before it would release him to an air ambulance that transported him to an American hospital — a payment that Connie calls a “bribe.”
Patrick Martin, the chief medical officer for the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis health ministry, says that Claussen’s allegations are under investigation as a result of my inquiry. He notes that the hospital in question has received emergency referrals from cruise ships for many years, and he says that the goal of such hospitalizations is to provide “the best available medical care locally in order to stabilize such persons and subsequently ensure their successful airlift to their next destination.”
Royal Caribbean reviewed the Claussens’ situation and says it handled it by the book. But at least one expert says that the book is wrong: If cruise lines really cared about their passengers, they’d keep them far away from any hospital near a Caribbean port of call.
“There are many horror stories like this,” says Jim Walker, a maritime attorney based in Miami who represents passengers who he says are “dumped” in the Caribbean. “The typical complaints we hear are watches, jewelry and cash being stolen by hospital personnel; unsanitary conditions; windows with no screens; flies everywhere; and nurses cleaning the toilets and then changing their IV lines. Hospitals max patients’ credit cards out. And they’re held hostage until all bills are paid.”
Walker says that cruise lines have no legal duty to an injured or ill passenger, and that they are working hard to keep it that way. “Cruise lines have spent millions of dollars lobbying against efforts to change the law,” he says.