On Jan. 20, 2014, my sister-in-law, Theresa M. Acerra, began a five-day cruise to Cozumel, Mexico, and Key West, Florida, on the Celebrity Constellation. She was 63 years old, in good health according to her doctors, and had regular checkups. She went to be with a group of people and just to relax.
The vessel left Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and arrived at Cozumel on Jan. 22 as scheduled. It spent the day there, and headed for Key West. Three hours after it left Cozumel, Theresa had a sudden heart attack. The medical staff on board stabilized her condition. After another hour, for reasons that nobody has explained, the captain and ship’s doctor decided to turn the ship around and head back to Cozumel.
At that time, the ship was in U.S. waters. But rather than request an airlift to a U.S. hospital from the Coast Guard, four hours were spent going back to Cozumel, and further time was wasted getting an ambulance to take her on a 30-minute ride to Costamed, a medical facility in Cozumel that had no better equipment or staff to care for her than were available on board ship.
Almost immediately upon arriving at Costamed, Theresa died. A Celebrity representative accompanied her from the cruise ship to port; however, once they arrived the representative was told by the cruise ship to go to a hotel and rest. Accordingly, Theresa, who spoke no Spanish, was left on her own, with nobody to communicate with medical personnel.
So what does her family know about the treatment she received? Almost nothing. We have received a death certificate from Mexico, signed by a person who is not even a doctor and whose name is not known by anyone at Costamed. We have no way of knowing whether the medical records we were given about her case are accurate.
It is widely known that the first hour after a heart attack is crucial for a recovery. Had Celebrity called the Coast Guard and had her airlifted to a U.S. hospital, Theresa might very likely be alive today. There have been many stories of the Coast Guard airlifting stricken cruise ship passengers from the same location where the Celebrity Constellation was at the time Theresa had her heart attack.
There should be a standard operating procedure followed when serious medical issues arise on a cruise ship. Yet not only did the cruise line make the wrong decision in Theresa’s case, they did not even contact her family! She lived with us, and we, her family, were the emergency contacts listed on the paperwork she filled out while booking the cruise. Yet we were never advised of her heart attack, and not even of her passing.
Nobody from the cruise ship called to tell us anything! We only learned because a fellow passenger from the same voyage took the trouble to call. We looked up the Costamed medical facility on the Internet and called there. We asked that they call us as soon as Theresa arrived; they never did. When we called back, they then told us that she had passed away.
Although we provided her insurance information, the Costamed facility refused to release her body until we sent them more than $7,000 in cash. We live in New York State; at the time of her death, a snowstorm was raging in Atlanta. Common sense would dictate that they send the body on a direct flight to New York; instead, they sent it to Atlanta, on a stopover flight. It remained there for two days because the snowstorm prevented planes from taking off.
Moreover, the cruise ship sent her to Costamed without any of her luggage. Not one personal item accompanied her; it remained on board. However, the cruise line later told us, falsely, that her luggage was with her body. Her luggage, all broken up, was returned to us two weeks after we got her body. It had been thrown in Lost Luggage as though it was the cruise line’s property, and wasn’t even packed carefully.
An experience of this nature is an eye-opener. We have been told that the cruise lines arrange things, through such measures as the Death on the High Seas Act, which make them not liable for any deeds or misdeeds of doctors on their ships. We also understand that they hire non-U.S. citizens so that people aren’t able to take action against them. None of this is likely to come to mind to people booking a cruise. They learn about it only in times of disaster.
As with so many other people, once a catastrophe happened in our own family we became intensely interested in this issue, and we have been doing research online. The number of people who have lost their lives on cruise ships is beyond belief. But even though more and more people are fighting to change things, the government refuses to pass laws. The cruise lines can pack thousands of people on a vessel and put them in the middle of the ocean, but have no responsibility for their health or safety. We will never get our sister back, but we pray daily that somebody will care and will take action to ensure that more lives are not lost on cruise ships.