When the situation takes a village to get something done, Tennesseans get it done in short order.
That get-it-done attitude was in full force this past weekend when Franklin resident Kevin Fuller’s mother found herself among the 3,500 people under quarantine aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship. Because of an outbreak of the coronavirus onboard, the ship was, for several days, anchored 70 miles off the California coast.
LaVina Fuller of Cedar Falls, Iowa, her sister Ruth and her husband and four other family members who live in California boarded the cruise ship on Feb. 21 for a long-awaited 14-day cruise to Hawaii.
On the return trip, they were scheduled to stop in Mexico for a day or two. However, on the night of March 4, the passengers noticed the ship was turning north. Later in the day, the ship anchored 70 miles off the coast of San Francisco.
“We were watching it all unfold on TV and the captain and crew weren’t being upfront with the passengers,” said Karyn Fuller, Kevin’s wife. “We knew they were going to be quarantined for awhile — they didn’t.”
The passengers thought they’d be tested and if they weren’t positive, they would get off the ship. Karyn said that the passengers also were told to close their blinds, stay in their cabins and don’t take photos if they heard a helicopter approach.
A bad feeling hit Karyn and Kevin like a brick. If LaVina Fuller was going to be quarantined on the boat for an extended period, she would run out of her blood-thinning medicine.
“We started making calls and kept getting the run-around,” Karyn said. “They set up a hotline to pacify people.”
Relatives in Iowa were also calling the medical staff on the ship.
“They said they would take care of her needs, but they weren’t,” Karyn said. “They only had two doctors and a couple nurses for 3.500 people.”
Frustrated, Karyn called the Coast Guard.
“Finally, we starting getting somewhere,” she said.
Or so they thought.
The Coast Guard advised them to make a list of prescriptions and mail it to the pier in Oakland, where the boat would be docking while the Coast Guard worked out getting the medication to LaVina.
On Thursday, one of the relatives went to the ship’s office and got a pier address. Another, in Iowa, took the list to the post office and learned the address was invalid. Karyn also attempted to get a pier address to no avail. Then the Coast Guard called to let the family know they’re emergency responsibilities had been revoked and the California Department of Public Health was in charge of everything regarding the ship.
“They were working with Vice President Pence, the Department of Health and Human Services and the task force,” she said.
On Friday, the entire family pulled together and emailed its concerns to the proper authorities. They made calls to the California DPH phone number listed and tried to leave a message, but said that five seconds wasn’t enough time to get out a 10-digit phone number. As a last resort, they sent an SOS email.
“We finally got a call from DPH. They were going to work on it,” Karyn said. “I’m not real trusting of government. It moves like snails.”
So, the family began looking for other solutions. Members in Iowa and Tennessee got on social media and spread the word. An Iowa relative called Iowa senior Sen. Chuck Grassley, but a staff member referred them to the wrong agency.
Iowa granddaughter Ally Latta’s Facebook message on Saturday morning read, “LaVina Fuller, 83 years old, is a passenger on the Princess Cruise ship stranded off the coast of CA. She is in urgent need of life-saving medication. The ship is not communicating. The CA Dept of Health is not communicating. We have made every attempt with the Coast Guard, CDC, 911, & multiple other high-level agencies to get her this medicine immediately. She will run out tonight & could have a stroke within hours. Please repost & tag all media outlets.”
Kevin called his friend Mike Vaughn for help.
“I have had a 30-year friendship with (state) Sen. Rusty Crowe from Johnson City,” Vaughn said. “I called him since he knows (7th District U.S. Rep.) Mark Green and has Mark’s phone number. I knew if anyone could help, it was Mark. He’d get on a helicopter and deliver the medicine himself if he had to, because he has. I was the foot soldier, Rusty the muse and Green made it happen.”
After Vaughn explained the Fuller’s predicament, Crowe immediately called his longtime friend and colleague.
“I knew I had to go to the horse’s mouth,” Crowe said. “I knew Mark would get it done.”
Within 15 minutes, the Fullers received a call from Green.
“When I explained the situation, he got really scared,” Karyn said. “He was fully invested and on board.”
About the same time, “an angel” was also about to get involved. California state Sen. Brian Jones saw a social media post by Kevin and Karyn’s daughter. He took a screen shot and emailed it to Lori Brown, his director of constituent services, with a note to “take care of this now.”
Brown called the Fullers and assured them that steps were underway.
She located the task force protocol and task flow chart and discovered the ship didn’t have protocol in place to connect a passenger’s physician to the ship’s doctor for a prescription.
“On top of all this, (LaVina Fuller) needed a blood test,” Karyn said. “Without it, the (dose of) the prescription would be wrong. We needed to get the two doctors together.”
“Dr. John Redd (an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) called us trying to hook us up with the two doctors,” Kevin said.
Brown finally cut through a spool of red tape and arranged to connect the two physicians. The ship’s doctor called Karyn to let her know he had the prescribed drugs on the ship and would draw her blood.
“I didn’t trust him, so we continued,” she said. “They ended up giving enough medication for only three days.”
On Sunday, the family pulled together, found a Walgreens near the pier and had a 14-day supply of the prescription filled. The Coast Guard arranged to pick it up and deliver it.
“We thought we could rest, that was until we heard when the ship ported, they would disembark passengers by the state in which they lived,” Karyn said.
LaVina lives in Iowa, but her sister Ruth, who was her assigned caregiver for the trip, lives in California.
“(Ruth) is needed to remind LaVina to take her meds and watch for certain symptoms,” Karyn said.
The phones were buzzing once again.
“We were told we needed a senator to call Lori,” Karyn said. “I called Mark Green.”
Green called U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn’s office and “within a minute, Marsha called me.”
After the first group of passengers was processed on Monday, the family watched via a live feed as LaVina, Ruth and the rest of their family, with masks on their faces and a box lunch under their arms, walked from the ship to the bus that would take then to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California.
However, five to six buses with at least 45 passengers and no bathrooms sat in place for almost seven hours before they began the 45-minute drive to the base.
No one in the Fuller family slept until they knew their family members in California were finally at their destination. That happened about 2 a.m. central time.
“We had channels working everywhere,” Kevin said. When no one else could, “Williamson County did it. Mark’s staff was outstanding, pushing messages forward and keeping in touch."
Even California Gov. Gavin Newsome helped.
“Hats off to our wonderful Congressman, Mark Green, (state) Sen. Rusty Crowe — he was on it in a second and then Mark called me,” Karyn said. “It was amazing. Sen. Blackburn stepped right up. They dropped everything. I was so impressed. Lori Brown, she was an absolute angel.”
Because of privacy laws, Green cannot comment about this issue. His office did send a message saying that he is grateful to HHS, the CDC and the U.S. Coast Guard for assisting the families of Tennesseans.
Karyn had one final comment: “Shame on Princess Cruise Line. They could’ve done a lot of things, but they lied. Although they gave everyone a refund and a $300 ship voucher, they lied from the start.”