Princess saves the day — and a life

Phyllis Occhionero and Erna Frances thought a well-deserved and hassle-free Princess cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to their home city of Seal Beach, near Los Angeles, Calif., was just what the doctor ordered.

But doctor’s orders quickly changed to emergency care during the middle of the cruise when Frances needed surgery — stat.

Before anyone had a chance to ponder the hurdles of expensive emergency health care away from home, an exemplary tag-team of Princess professionals, air transport staff, and medical personnel expertly evacuated her to a safe surgical haven.

A cruise line actually takes care of a sick passenger? What’s the world coming to?

Health care costs are spiraling out of control, insurance or not with no end in sight, especially in the next four years. That’s good fodder for another column. Don’t get me started.

Serious medical issues while vacationing in remote locations are not something many of us want to think about but need to, especially as we get older. Accidents, broken bones, disease, and surprise ailments needing surgery can happen at any age to anyone at any time.

Some travelers may learn the hard way that the medical care grass may not always be greener elsewhere, especially without a credit card. If fortunate enough to already have a customary U.S. medical insurance policy that includes overseas emergency coverage, one still has to fend for oneself and usually submit expenses for reimbursement after the fact.

To fill this niche, numerous insurance carriers provide various modes of trip-only coverage at affordable prices for a myriad of circumstances, including aggressive patient advocacy and emergency air transport to a reliable medical facility.

Medjet Assist, a sponsor of our site, remains a common example of not only rapid emergency transport but also a security and crisis response option. And our familiar “Blues” offer their GeoBlue option. Many choices and types abound, but know the fine print. There is lots of it.

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As someone — ahem — older, the Good News Guy could not be more grateful for his health and the privilege of being able to travel for work in the first place. My go-to medical insurance abroad is from Divers Alert Network (DAN). One does not have to dive to receive emergency medical benefits in foreign countries, or even in the U.S. under certain circumstances (no, I didn’t know Lloyd Bridges — stop it). They even provide access to hyperbaric recompression treatment.

The reality is some popular destinations are in host countries having less than optimal medical care, facilities, and government infrastructure. Occhionero’s and Francis’ host country was the Island Princess itself, devoid of major ER facilities, as is to be expected.

Princess plugs that hole with their optional contracted trip insurance vendor, Aon Affinity, which also provides many other modes of risk management. Much like cancel-for-any-reason trip insurance our forum recommends for refunds of nonrefundable travel expenses, Princess provides Aon’s medical insurance option as an add-on purchase.

And did it ever come in handy.

“We left Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 20 for a 14-day cruise through the Panama Canal to Los Angeles, arriving Jan. 4, 2017,” Occhionero explains. “On Dec. 29, Frances was admitted to the ship’s medical facility where the doctor expertly diagnosed an intestinal perforation.”


“We were evacuated to the nearest port at Huatulco, Mexico, then by air ambulance to San Diego, with a transfer to Sharp Memorial Hospital for emergency surgery that evening,” Occhionero continued.

If you think they’re just getting what they paid for, not so fast. Because if something can go wrong or be overlooked during a fury of frenzied and frightening moments in a foreign land, this will be the time — separating those who care from those who merely do their jobs.

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“It was not until we were arriving at the Huatulco airport that we realized the ship’s immigration officer still had our passports,” Occhionero went on. “I told an attending doctor what happened and the staff called the ship. But the Princess already discovered the error and sent someone after us.”

Wow. That is some incredible customer service.

This medical menagerie of premium patient care was by no means done. The pilot and co-pilot introduced themselves, assisting with their carry-on luggage and providing Occhionero with a meal. In attendance were two English-speaking doctors and a nurse — not necessarily overkill when the flight needed to fly low and slow to minimize air pressure changes to delicate and stressed internal organs.

The private transport along with the attending medical staff to the U.S. alone would have been a formidable expense even before any surgery. “We had purchased the trip insurance and everyone provided such fantastic service and help with the evacuation,” she said.

This story could easily end upon their arrival at Sharp Hospital where the surgery was successful and rapid. But why have a happy ending when we can have an even happier one?

“Sharp actually assigned staff to provide assistance to medical evacuees like us while coordinating with Princess,” said Occhionero. “That night while waiting for Frances to come out of surgery, Princess’ Family Assistance rep called to see what else they can do to help and Aon reps even offered to cover a hotel room for me.”

Wow again.

“I preferred to stay in the hospital room and use the couch,” she added. “The nursing staff provided me with sheets, blanket and pillow, and even the air ambulance vendor called to check on us.”

Here’s my favorite part of the story, since prying a refund out of a cruise line is a holy grail of typically unattainable consumer requests. “Not only did numerous Aon reps call me to check on things but also helped me complete the forms to refund the unused days of the cruise,” Occhionero says.

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Just like that.

At a time when cruise lines are accused of impersonal cattle-car customer management and travel insurance carriers seem to have Ph.D.’s in finding fine print and technicalities to avoid paying out claims, Princess and Aon Affinity would have none of that. Not to be outdone, Sharp was no slouch either.

The total cost is likely staggering and while medical care sometimes leaves out the care, all the reps and staff went above and beyond being technically correct, exceeding expectations and job descriptions, mobilizing instantly with little heads-up.

No less critical than competent and humane medicine was Aon’s behind-the-scenes “insider” advocacy abilities to smooth along foreign bureaucratic processes at a pace few of us could do individually. No filling out forms (until home), waiting in lines, customs and immigrations issues, or convincing others to help you right away.

Oh, and in case no one caught it, Aon picked up the entire transport tab for Occhionero so Frances would never be alone.

And Occhionero didn’t forget to do her part at the end of the day to praise those who deserve it when things go right with the same vigor as many of us complain when things go wrong.

“As critical as her condition was, they made the transition as seamless as possible,” she concluded. “I just can’t say thank you enough for all the services that they provided to both of us.”

We are happy to help with that.

Hey, wait a minute…I just realized I need to renew my DAN insurance premium.

Andrew Der

Der is an environmental consultant and travel journalist specializing in water science, nature, eco-travel, and cultural destinations

  • finance_tony

    Nice outcome.

    As an aside, I find that all the theatrical literary flourishes and sidebars make the writing very hard to follow.

  • KennyG

    Nice to see a column where it seems that not only did everything turn out well, but the author went out of his way to compliment the cruise line and its employees. I wish there were more of these “happy ending” stories, but then again most people who are happy will typically not write into a consumer advocacy site. Not so nice however to see the author inject what would appear to be a political statement that has nothing to do with the good news story itself. A time and place for everything!

  • sirwired

    And, as a public service announcement: Guess what happens if you DON’T buy evac insurance, and your traveling companion can’t convince the evac company you have sufficient assets to cover the costs once you get home?

    The ship will do what they can, and the local hospital will do what they can (it’s entirely possible there will be a decent one available), but for something really serious, you are simply going to die. Nobody, not the captain, not the ship’s doctor, not the embassy, not the doctor on-shore, is going to front the money to cover that cost, and the evac company won’t do it for free.

    (And, to top it off, your estate will need to come up with the funds to repatriate your remains (assuming that’s something you’d like to happen. This is also not an inexpensive process.)

    So, when deciding if you want travel insurance or not, at LEAST get Med Evac coverage if you will be traveling to places where that could be a problem.

  • Koholaz

    As with all policies carefully compare the medical evacuation section to ensure you will be transported to an appropriate facility that dispenses medical care following western standards. As a former flight nurse (we used Learjet flying ambulances) I have picked up patients from hospitals all over the globe and some you do NOT want to end up in. Transport to the “nearest hospital” may end you up in some pretty dicey places. And most policies will not guarantee that you will be anywhere near home. Read that pesky fine print and ask the questions. Recovering from a broken hip in southern India is not going to a pleasant experience if you are from Akron.

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