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

Woman Died on Royal Caribbean Cruise Because of Shoddy Medical Care, Family Says
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On a hot summer evening aboard a cruise ship in Naples, Italy, Amy Tong began to feel ill. She told her husband, Jerry Ho, that she was having trouble breathing. He immediately contacted the ship's medical office, but it was closed. Despite Ho's attempts to get help for Tong, a scientist and academic, aboard the Royal Caribbean cruise ship, in just a few short hours, Tong died from congestive heart failure.

Now, Ho is suing Royal Caribbean in Florida's Southern District Court. He argues that his wife's death could have been avoided had the cruise company provided competent medical care aboard the Freedom of the Seas or if they had made the decision to evacuate Tong off the ship sooner.

"Very frequently, these doctors are from countries that don't necessarily have as good medical care as do they do in the parts of the world where most of their passengers are coming from, though they expect a quality of care to be provided from the cruise company that is similar to what they're used to receiving," Clay Naughton, Ho's attorney, says. "Cruise ship companies have been saying for years that 'that's not our problem.' Typically, these doctors disappear after an incident like this, and they're never heard from again."

Asked about the allegations, Owen Torres, a Royal Caribbean spokesperson, says, "We are unable to respond to any inquiries regarding this case as it is under litigation."

Stories such as Tong's are not uncommon among cruise lines, which have been dogged by accusations that they hire poorly qualified doctors to man ships.

Less than a year before Tong's death, 68-year-old Brenda Jackson died aboard a Carnival ship. 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 oxygen flow despite warnings from the nurse that 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 in Miami's federal courthouse, Jackson "made an agonized screeching noise and went into cardiac arrest." In the hours that followed, 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 Carnival Dream. (A Carnival spokesperson says the company does not comment on pending litigation.)

Tong's death, meanwhile, came during a cruise through the Mediterranean. In their last five days together, Ho and Tong, who shared a house just outside San Francisco, had traveled from Barcelona to Marseilles, France, and spent a day in Rome before heading to Naples.

Around 7 p.m. Friday, June 30, 2017, Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas was berthed in Naples, the lawsuit says. Tong had lupus but said her condition was "well-managed." When she told her husband she was having trouble breathing, Ho called the ship's medical office but found it was closed, according to their lawsuit.

He says he searched for a crew member, who then contacted an on-call nurse by phone. Ho described Tong's condition to the nurse, but the nurse allegedly said the ship's only medical facility for the nearly 5,000 people aboard the Freedom of the Seas was closed.

She insisted on a "telephone triage," the lawsuit states, after which she finally agreed Tong needed to go to the ship's infirmary, but when they arrived, they found the infirmary was locked and none of the ship's medical personnel were present.

Twenty minutes after they arrived, the on-call nurse unlocked the door and examined Tong. The ship's doctor showed up some time later and performed diagnostic tests, including a chest x-ray, and gave Tong oxygen (her oxygen level was 74 percent and her heart rate was 134 bpm when the nurse examined her).

But her health continued to deteriorate, and nearly three hours after Tong had first asked for help, she was removed from the ship and taken ashore by the Italian Coast Guard. Around 11 p.m., Tong arrived at an Italian hospital by ambulance. One hour later, she was dead.

"Mr. Ho has forever been deprived of the companionship, support, and relationship of his wife Amy Tong," the lawsuit states. Royal Caribbean employees not only failed to evacuate Tong in a timely manner, the lawsuit states, but also "relied on medical opinions and/or advice of ship doctors and nurses who were not properly qualified and failed to have proper licenses in the jurisdiction of the flag of the ship on which they were hired to provide medical care."

The crew could have consulted with qualified personnel onshore via Skype or phone but didn't, Ho's lawyer says.

"RCCL failed to adequately train, supervise, and instruct crew members to properly respond to medical emergencies and take steps to promptly evacuate a passenger who they were clearly unprepared and unqualified to treat," the lawsuit states. "If properly trained, Mrs. Tong would have been evacuated immediately by air rather than by boat after hours of useless testing."
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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