Madonna O’Brien and Aldo Razza are a cruising couple from Gloucester in New South Wales. Whenever, they can, they leave their small house for an annual cruise holiday with Royal Caribbean. It was during one of these annual escapes that everything went wrong.

O’Brien tells the story. “We were cruising on Ovation of the Seas, 10 days Pacific islands cruise leaving Sydney on 16th November 2022. We always look forward to being on a Royal Caribbean ship because we know how wonderful it will be.

“We also love going back to the Pacific islands as much as possible, because of the beautiful people who live there.

“Our cruise started off, as always, a cocktails at the pool, enjoying the fresh sea air. We had a wonderful first day, and the second at sea was perfect too. We relaxed all day, had an early dinner, and then a spa before bed.”

A couple cruising together.
The happy cruising couple.

However, it was here where everything changed.

“As we were going to get a nightcap to take to our room Aldo looked at me and said ‘I don’t feel good’ clutching his chest. He looked very grey and clammy and I tried to get him to a seat, he collapsed two steps later. He had collapsed right in front of the formal photographer, I asked them to quickly call for medical help.

“Aldo doesn’t remember much after that.  He can’t remember them quickly putting him in a wheelchair and being brought to the medway within 5 minutes. He does remember them telling him he had a heart attack, then he went into cardiac arrest.”

What followed were the most horrifying moments of O’Brien’s life, as doctors fought to keep her husband alive.

“I was taken out of the room while they fought to get Aldo back… it was the scariest moment of my life..After what seemed like forever but was probably 20 minutes  the doctor came out and told me it was good news.

“They had successfully removed the clot and Aldo had suffered a widow-maker heart attack, which is more common in men at a younger age, occurs when there’s a blockage in the left anterior descending (LAD) artery, a major artery that carries blood to the left ventricle, the left chamber of the heart,”  most do not survive this.”

Doctors surround Aldo.
Emergency care in action.

A second heart attack

The doctors and captain put their heads together to organise a medical evacuation.

“Aldo was still in critical condition and the doctors and Captain were trying to organise a medivac asap. However,  being only on our second day of the cruise we were in the Pacific Ocean, many miles away from help. I was told the Captain would speed up the ship all night and the next day to get Aldo help and we would be met by a helicopter around 5pm the following day.

“As the doctors had busted the clot and Aldo was reasonably stable he was moved out of the trauma bay to another room to wait for the helicopter the next day. It was a huge relief to know he was doing better.”

Just as things were looking up, they took a sudden turn for the worse.

“Ninety minutes later, Aldo went into cardiac arrest again. The doctors fought to bring  him back…..again!  Again they were successful at restarting Aldo’s heart but his situation was critical. Most don’t survive one ‘widow maker’ heart attack. It was now a case of praying he would make it through the night and the next day until  help could arrive.”

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The evacuation

A helicopter reached the ship in the middle of the ocean, still far from any land, ready to get Aldo to emergency care as soon as possible.

“Thankfully at around 3pm the helicopter met us, still 90 minute flight each way from Noumea and back. As we were still far away at sea we were met by New Caledonian military Puma helicopter with medical staff onboard. It was quite the spectacle for the other guests and crew.

“After a thorough handover and getting Aldo in there safely, he was lifted up to the helicopter and on his 90 minute ride to Noumea.”

Weeks in Noumea

After O’Brien could finally get off the ship, what followed was two gruelling weeks in Noumea.

“The helicopter crew and Doctors got him Safely to Gaston Bourret Hospital in Noumea where he was taken straight to the theatre. I was told at 6 pm that evening that he had stents put in his heart and was recovering in the Cardiac ICU.

“It’s worth noting that the hospital will not accept a patient with no travel insurance, indeed they will not let anyone without travel insurance into New Caledonia. Gaston Bourret is the only hospital in that area of the Pacific that health insurance companies will allow people to attend for treatment.

“I had to wait until the next afternoon to be taken off the ship,it was a terrible wait to get to Port Vila but I wasn’t left alone, I was very well take  care of by the crew and some beautiful ladies who rescued me when i collapsed while making the first call to the 1 Cover. When we arrived close enough to Port Vila I was tendered to the airport where my flight to Noumea had been booked by the crew.”

Aldo bravely battling through his treatment in Noumea.
Aldo bravely battles through his treatment in Noumea.

Royal Caribbean and 1Cover save the day

O’Brien speaks of how Royal Caribbean took care of every detail of the process.

“Everything, and I mean everything was taken care of by Royal Caribbean, my flights, transfers, hotel, and daily pick up from hotel to hospital and return each night. We then had Fabienne, Royals port agent visit every day to interpret what the cardiologists were saying. 

“Our travel Insurance company, 1Cover also dealt with Fabienne in organising everything we needed.  They had Australian nurses I could call anytime 24/7.  It was so wonderful to speak to an Australian whenever I needed reassurance. They also were very good at making sure I was coping ok alone in a foreign country.  1 Cover also gave us an allocation to bring a family member to Noumea to be with me.”

After such a dramatic process, O’Brien sang the praises of 1Cover.

“Having 1 Cover on hand 24/7, the reassurance and peace of mind they gave us at such a difficult time is priceless! I could call them anytime. We knew they had us covered for everything.

“We had a 1Cover cruise and covid top-level policy. We paid a few hundred dollars, I can’t recall exactly the amount. Having that insurance is the most important item a traveller needs.  If we didn’t have it the cost would have been beyond anything we could ever pay for.  We would have had to pay around $150,000!! We don’t have that kind of money. The peace of mind having travel insurance gives you means a whole lot more given our experience.”

The cost breakdown

  • $26,000: one night and one day in the Medical Bay on Ovation of the Seas.
  • $0: The military helicopter rescue was written off by the Noumea Military as it was used as a training exercise, however, the couple was told it can normally cost up to $80,000.
  • $70,000: Two weeks in a hospital in Noumea, at $5000 per day.
  • $20,000 approx: Four flights home, including two in first class so Aldo could travel comfortably, with a doctor by his side as well. Then two further for Madonna and a family member.
  • Further costs: Accommodation, transfers, and food in Noumea, use of an interpreter, medical consultations with Australian doctors, internal flights in Noumea, cost of flights and transports for a family member for Australia, and transport.
  • Total costs: approximately $150,000.

How is Aldo now?

Thanks to the emergency care received, Aldo is still with us and even better than that, in good health, even cruising again.

O’Brien says: “Aldo has recovered well. If we were not on Ovation of the Seas, Aldo would not be here with us today. His doctors have told him that of he was at home, working in a paddock, even if I found him an ambulance would not have arrived in time!

“The amazing care we had aboard Ovation allowed us to get back on the ship in March.”

The couple even caught up with some of the medical professionals that saved Aldo’s life.

“We were able to catch up with Captain Espen, one of the doctors, nurses, and Guest Services Manager who all looked after us so well. We had a catch-up on the bridge, Dr Yasmine took Aldo on a tour of the medical bay as he doesn’t remember a lot, of names or faces. It was wonderful to have lunch with them and the Captain to thank them person for all they did for us in partnership with 1Cover.”

Aldo and Madonna smiling again.
Aldo and Madonna smiling again.