Saturday, January 20, 2018
Business

Couple stranded by cruise in Turkey receives outpouring of support

CLEARWATER — A Clearwater couple is finally getting help in an American hospital in Turkey after Royal Caribbean cruise lines abandoned them at a rural hospital, leaving them with only hand gestures and guidebook Turkish to try to arrange surgery for a broken hip.

Dodge Melkonian, an 89-year-old World War II veteran and businessman, is now recovering at an American hospital in Istanbul, where he eventually was transported for hip surgery.

The procedure's success was only possible, said his wife, Jill Melkonian, 65, because of two persistent Palm Harbor travel agents and a Turkish tour guide who befriended the couple and even donated his blood for the surgery.

Jill Melkonian emailed the Tampa Bay Times from Turkey on Monday to say the hospital food is delicious, the Turkish people are "heartwarming and kind" and the visit has been full of "unexpected beautiful moments."

A real estate agent, Melkonian said she and her husband have visited nearly 200 countries and intend to keep traveling despite the difficulties they've endured in the last week.

Their international saga began Aug. 19, a day after they departed on a 12-day cruise to Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Bulgaria and other countries through Azamara, a Royal Caribbean subsidiary.

They got the free trip after their cabin caught fire on a previous Royal Caribbean cruise to southeast Asia in March 2012.

At 1:30 a.m. Aug. 19, Dodge Melkonian rose from bed and stumbled in the dark.

The ship's doctor diagnosed him with a broken hip, and the cruise line transported the husband and wife to Bartin, a rural province in northern Turkey on the Black Sea. The hospital there had no intensive care unit, and it was clear they needed to move elsewhere.

Jill Melkonian and others tried to get her husband transferred by helicopter, but Royal Caribbean and On Call International, the travel insurance company that offers insurance for the cruise line, delayed.

Friends arranged for a government ambulance, but On Call intervened and insisted on using its own ambulance, arriving more than 24 hours later to pick up the couple for a seven-hour ride over rugged roads.

The ambulance had no doctor or nurse. And by the time they arrived in Istanbul, Dodge Melkonian's pills were not enough to shut out the pain.

As of Monday, On Call still hadn't put in writing how much of the medical costs it will cover.

Royal Caribbean and On Call International did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails from the Times on Sunday and Monday.

The incident has inspired an outpouring of love and support from friends and strangers in Turkey and the United States even as it has raised the ire of critics of the cruise and insurance industries.

Dodge Melkonian, an active member of the Clearwater Evening Lions Club, got a visit Monday from a member of the Lions Club in Istanbul.

And travel agents Tammy Levent and Judy Sontag of Elite Travel Management Group in Palm Harbor have also thrown their support behind their clients, contacting the U.S. State Department, Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Bill Nelson.

Nelson, who contacted the American Embassy in Turkey, called the incident "outrageous." And Levent said she's talking with Nelson's office about drafting a law that would ban cruise lines from leaving people stranded.

"Where is the humanity in that?" she said. "There is no accountability, and that has to change."

Levent and Sontag contacted Turkish tour operator Okan Kutlu of TSC Travel, who has spent the past week haggling with the insurance company, the cruise line, the U.S. Embassy and the Turkish government on behalf of the Melkonians. He translates for the couple and visits them every day after he finishes work at 7 p.m.

And it was Kutlu's A-positive blood donation that made it possible for Melkonian to get the surgery.

Jill Melkonian calls Kutlu "an angel," but he's clearly modest.

"They do not know anybody else in the country with same blood type," said Kutlu, who said the mixing of blood symbolizes "that all mankind has the same creation, even if we are from different nations, religions, cultures and speak different languages."

He said Melkonian is in a lot of pain and has a fever but smiles a lot and keeps his spirits up.

In the meantime, Jill Melkonian said, the nurses at the hospital love her husband and are giving him "lots of hugs." The doctor told him he has the "health and body of a man 30 years younger," she said.

Any setbacks, she said, were only the result of the length of time it took to get treatment.

"He is trying very hard to be a good patient," she said. "But he is a very proud man and very independent."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at [email protected] or 850-323-0353.

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