Another Woman Died on a Royal Caribbean Cruise Because of Shoddy Medical Care, Family Says

Cynthia Braaf, Humphrey Braaf, and their three children.
Cynthia Braaf, Humphrey Braaf, and their three children. Courtesy of Humphrey Braaf
Cynthia and Humphrey Braaf left their home in Sunrise last November for a six-night Caribbean cruise to celebrate their 30th anniversary — but only Humphrey made it home. After Cynthia fell ill aboard the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Freedom of the Seas, she was unable to get needed medical care, and by the time she was finally evacuated, it was too late, a lawsuit filed earlier this month states. Braaf had lost the love of his life, and his three children lost their mother.

Humphrey and Cynthia met when they were just 5 years old. Their parents were close friends, so the two became childhood playmates. After Humphrey graduated from college, they reconnected and became inseparable. They had three children together. Their youngest turned 22 in June 2017, so Humphrey and Cynthia felt their lives had reached a point where they had more time to focus on each other. They had never been on a cruise before but, at their pastor's suggestion, decided to try one.

"The cruise was the start of all the things we had planned together. Our kids had just grown up. We were going to go to Israel — we had a lot of things planned," Humphrey tells New Times. "But I guess if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."

After Cynthia's death, Humphrey was left with funeral and medical bills. A co-worker started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover some of the costs. Earlier this month, Humphrey sued Royal Caribbean in Florida's Southern District to try to recoup some of his losses. The lawsuit claims Cynthia's death could have been avoided had the cruise line provided adequate medical care aboard the ship.

Although Cynthia could have been airlifted off the ship once Royal Caribbean doctors realized she was in critical condition, she wasn't promptly evacuated, and her condition worsened overnight with limited medical assistance, the lawsuit states.

Asked about Cynthia's death, Owen Torres, a Royal Caribbean spokesperson, said in a statement emailed to New Times: "We are unable to respond to any inquiries regarding this case as it is under litigation."

It is not uncommon for passengers who fall ill aboard cruise ships to die after failing to receive adequate medical care onboard.

Just months before Cynthia died at the age of 54, Amy Tong began suffering complications from lupus while aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise in Naples June 30, 2017. Though her husband immediately sought medical help, he was initially told the only medical facility for the nearly 5,000 people aboard the Freedom of the Seas was closed. More than 20 minutes later, he was able to get assistance for his wife, but ship doctors did not administer proper treatment, a lawsuit filed against Royal Caribbean this past August alleges. Within hours, she was dead.

Exactly one year before Cynthia's death, 68-year-old Brenda Jackson died aboard the Carnival Dream. Around 2 a.m. November 13, 2016, Jackson, who had mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and her daughter, Printiss Jackson-Davis, saw the ship's doctor because Jackson was having trouble breathing. The doctor directed a nurse to administer oxygen to Jackson to increase her airflow despite the nurse warning it was a bad idea for someone with COPD.

According to a lawsuit later filed by Jackson-Davis, her mother felt lightheaded while connected to the oxygen and asked for it to be turned off, but the doctor said no. Minutes later, according to the lawsuit, Jackson "made an agonized screeching noise and went into cardiac arrest." In the hours that followed, Brenda Jackson suffered another heart attack and a seizure, and though the ship's doctor allegedly said he would call a helicopter to evacuate Jackson, he never did. She later died aboard the ship. (A Carnival spokesperson said the company does not comment on pending litigation.)

In the most recent case, Cynthia Braaf began suffering complications from her well-managed diabetes several days into the cruise on the morning of November 10, 2017. Her husband contacted the ship's infirmary and alerted doctors that his wife was feeling lethargic and weak and had slurred speech, the lawsuit states.
click to enlarge Cynthia and Humphrey's last photo together, taken aboard the Freedom of the Seas on their wedding anniversary. - COURTESY OF HUMPHREY BRAAF
Cynthia and Humphrey's last photo together, taken aboard the Freedom of the Seas on their wedding anniversary.
Courtesy of Humphrey Braaf
After some back-and-forth, a nurse arrived at their room and noted Cynthia was hyperventilating and hypothermic. A blood sugar test revealed she had a glucose level of 419, way above the normal range. She was taken to the ship's infirmary, where they found she had a significantly low pH level and potassium of 3.3 (which is slightly below normal). She was diagnosed with diabetic ketoacidosis, a severe and urgent — yet very treatable — medical condition.

Then Cynthia's symptoms rapidly worsened. Within an hour and 20 minutes, the lawsuit states, her potassium level shot up to a dangerously high 7.1, which can lead to deadly changes in heart rhythm.

When the ship's doctor, Japtha Myrna from South Africa, arrived, he ordered "2 units of insulin" if Cynthia's blood glucose level was at or above 300. In the early-morning hours of November 11, the insulin was administered, the lawsuit states, along with 50 ml of sodium bicarbonate. Treatment for diabetic ketoacidosis typically involves intravenous fluids, insulin, and potassium to prevent low blood potassium levels.

After the Freedom of the Seas returned to Port Everglades, Cynthia was immediately transferred to Broward General Hospital via ambulance. When she arrived at the ER, she was intubated and unresponsive. Several hours later, at 12:25 a.m. November 12, she was pronounced dead. Diabetic ketoacidosis was listed as the cause of death.

Five days after Cynthia died at Broward General Hospital, her daughter gave birth to the Braafs' first grandchild.

"My daughter was in that same hospital later on that week, and she gave birth to my grandson. Cynthia couldn't be there for it," Humphrey said. "I don't understand why you can have a dining hall or a club or a store that has more square footage than a sick bay has on a ship with 4,000 people on it."

The lawsuit alleges Royal Caribbean was negligent because doctors failed to properly assess Cynthia's condition, appropriately treat her, consult appropriate specialists, monitor her, or evacuate her.

"Had Cynthia Braaf received the appropriate care and treatment, she more than likely would not have died," the lawsuit states.

"Every day, I'm still in the same house. I'm still in the same bedroom. I see our pictures together every day; so do my kids, and there are days where I think, I'm just no good," Humphrey says. "But I'm trying, and so are they. I hope this makes a difference. This shouldn't happen to anyone else. I wouldn't wish this pain on my worst enemy."
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Meg O'Connor is a freelance journalist for Miami New Times. She moved to Miami from New York after earning a master's degree in investigative journalism from Columbia University. She previously worked for CNN's Investigative Unit.
Contact: Meg O'Connor