Marlene and Don Bryce had been married 53 years when they boarded a luxury cruise ship last summer to celebrate Don’s recent retirement.
They planned to spend the cruise visiting Europe’s most popular ports of call aboard Holland America’s ms Rotterdam.
“And, I guess from there on was the beginning of the end,” Marlene said.
Twelve days into the cruise, Don Bryce died on the floor of cabin 2629.
“They covered him with a blanket and that was the last I saw him.”
Lori Vaaga is convinced her father would be alive today if he’d only gotten better medical care on the ship.
“My parents were on the cruise but it sounds like the medical staff was on vacation,” she said.
The Problem Solvers pieced together the last four days of Don’s life, using his shipboard medical records, and the recollections of his wife and two passengers – Robin Southward and Deanna Soiseth – who stayed in the cabins nearby.
“This couldn’t possibly happen, especially when we were told there is good medical care on the ship,” said Deanna.
On the first day of his four-day ordeal, Don was vomiting.
Medical records show he got medicine to ease his symptoms from nurses and the ship’s doctor, Mark Gibson.
But on the third day Don took a turn for the worse and, according to his family, so did his medical care.
Marlene Bryce said she had never seen her husband that sick.
At 5:10 a.m., she called for a nurse.
Records show the nurse came to the couple’s cabin but took no vital signs, only a temperature, and gave Don medicine to stop the vomiting and diarrhea.
Yet the nurse felt Don was sick enough to be kept away from other passengers.
“She looked at him and said ‘you are under quarantine, you are not to leave this room.'”
Marlene says Holland America staff members told her if Don left the room, they’d both be kicked off the ship.
At 11:20 a.m. on the third day, Marlene said Don was worse. He was weak, confused and had a relentless cough.
The medical records show Marlene called the infirmary and spoke to Dr. Gibson.
Gibson did not come to the cabin. Instead records show he told Marlene to keep giving Don Claritin and Imodium.
“We got the sense he was very weak,” remembers passenger Robin Southward.
Deanna Soiseth said Marlene was very concerned and felt Don wasn’t getting any better.
At 5:30 that evening, Marlene says she was so worried she went to the infirmary to plead with Dr. Gibson to come to the cabin.
“And he couldn’t come because he didn’t have the time,” she said.
Marlene says Dr. Gibson told her he was closing the clinic at 6 p.m. He’d see Don at 8 a.m. the next morning.
Yet the doctor’s notes say Don was improving: “improving energy, appetite…. is taking fluids,” they read.
But Marlene insists that doesn’t make sense. She said she would never have gone to the clinic just to report Don was getting better.
At 2 a.m. on the fourth and final day of Don’s battle, “His skin was turning dark” recalls Marlene.
Marlene made an emergency call for a nurse. The nurse doesn’t come to the cabin, but she has advice.
“She said ‘well, get him something to eat and have him drink water.'”
At 4:40 a.m., Marlene made her last emergency call.
By now Don is cold, and his skin very dark.
“I said ‘somebody’s got to get up here, I don’t like what I’m seeing.'”
The records show a nurse arrived at 4:50.
The doctor is called at 5:00 am, but doesn’t arrive until 5:35, two minutes after Don Bryce collapses.
“I was probably five feet away from him on a chair, and saw him die,” said Marlene.
The Bryce’s daughter, Lori, is angry.
“My mom had to see the man she loved die on the floor in front of her because nobody would listen to her when she tried to say he was getting worse and worse.”
The autopsy report says Don Bryce died of a heart attack, and also notes he had pneumonia.
We couldn’t reach Dr. Mark Gibson for comment. In a written statement, Holland America says it reviewed Mr Bryce’s case files.
“Holland America line feels there are misunderstandings about the care he was provided and the chronology of events,” the statement reads.
The company said Dr. Gibson and his medical staff were in frequent contact with the Bryces and did nothing wrong.
“We have determined the medical staff acted in a proper and professional manner as appropriate for this case.”
The Bryce family believes dehydration triggered Don’s heart attack.
They question why he was never given IV Fluids, especially since he had a history of heart trouble and wore a pacemaker — something duly noted on the ship’s medical charts.
To make matters worse, after her husband died, Marlene Bryce says Holland America left her completely alone in a room stripped of all its linens.
“It was horrible, absolutely horrible,” says Deanna Soiseth. “She was just there by herself in shock.”
Soiseth was a perfect stranger before the cruise but became Marlene’s primary comfort after Don’s death.
“Nobody checked on her to say ‘do you need help ma’am?'”
Holland America admits its staff could have done a better job supporting Marlene after her husband’s death.
“We have apologized to Mrs. Bryce,” Holland America said in a statement.
“This should not have happened,” Marlene said. “And I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
She doesn’t want to see another woman come home alone from a luxury cruise.
Lori Vaaga added, “My dad spent his entire life just trying to do the right thing. He was such an honorable man. And he died a totally unnecessary death.”
Holland America says it’s an industry leader in cruise medicine, but the Bryce family says there’s something they don’t tell you.
Maritime law says the cruise lines aren’t responsible for the actions of their doctors since they’re independent contractors.
The Bryces think every passenger should know this before they go on a cruise.