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After being stranded in Turkey by Royal Caribbean, Clearwater man is recovering

CLEARWATER — Dodge and Jill Melkonian haven't had the best luck with cruises lately.

On a cruise through southeast Asia last year, the Clearwater couple was on a ship that drifted for 24 hours after being disabled by an engine room fire. In apology, Royal Caribbean cruise lines gave them a free trip. On the free cruise, the company made international news for abandoning the injured 89-year-old man and his wife at a hospital in Turkey.

To make amends, Royal Caribbean is now making another offer — a second free cruise.

"We will do more cruising," said Jill Melkonian, 65. "But it may be a different cruise line."

Both disastrous cruises were on the Royal Caribbean subsidiary Azamara. During the most recent one, last month, Dodge Melkonian fell and broke his hip when he rose during the night to use the restroom.

Although the couple bought travel insurance through the Royal Caribbean partner On Call International, the ship's crew abandoned the couple in a rural hospital with no intensive care unit. They had only guidebook-level Turkish to help them navigate potential hip surgery.

More than 24 hours later, the insurance company sent an ambulance to transport the couple seven hours over rugged roads from Bartin, a small northern province near the Black Sea, to an Istanbul hospital where the man could get surgery.

Help only came after the incident made international news and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson publicly blasted the cruise line and contacted the American embassy in Turkey.

Royal Caribbean did not respond to phone calls and emails from the Tampa Bay Times.

Dodge Melkonian is now in a Pinellas County rehabilitation facility, stretching and exercising so he can put weight back on his left hip. Jill, who is in real estate, says she and her husband have been to 183 countries and hope to reach 200.

Now, six weeks after their crisis, it's the stories of kindness that make Jill Melkonian's eyes well up with tears. There were the armed security guards outside of the rural hospital who tried to alleviate her stress by sharing their lunch and black tea. There was a Turkish tour guide who befriended them and donated his blood so Dodge could have his surgery.

The incident isn't entirely over.

In an interview, Jill was careful not to discuss her negotiations with Royal Caribbean because it's unclear how much the company will pay to cover medical expenses and transportation costs. At the height of the media coverage, the cruise line sent a letter to the couple saying it would pick up all costs not covered by the travel insurance.

When reached by phone, Dodge said he was trying to be a "patient patient" but is anxious to return home.

Tammy Levent, the couple's travel agent who promoted their plight to the media and negotiated with Royal Caribbean and the travel insurance company on their behalf, estimated that without insurance the combined cost of the medical care and transport for Dodge would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

She said she is now working with Nelson's office with the hope of proposing a law banning cruise lines from abandoning people without help at international ports.

"You shouldn't be able to just leave somebody behind," she said.

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com or (850) 323-0353.

After being stranded in Turkey by Royal Caribbean, Clearwater man is recovering 10/01/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 11:39pm]
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