I came down with the flu while on board a cruise ship as a teenager and was quarantined for 24 hours — here’s what my experience was like

The author on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas in 2010. David Kalish
  • In 2010, when I was 16, I came down with the stomach flu while on board Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas with my family.
  • After visiting the ship’s infirmary, I was put under a 24-hour quarantine to make sure my sickness passed before I could walk the ship again.
  • I spent the next day watching free movies and was released that evening, once I showed no more signs of symptoms.
  • The cruise staff also took other precautions, like asking where I’d been on the ship that day and checking in on me to make sure I was adhering to my quarantine.
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As soon as you recover from being sick, your mind tends to block out all the worst parts of it – the nauseating sensations, the feelings of hopelessness, the fear of never being well again.

Because of that, I don’t remember much about my first 48 hours on Oasis of the Seas in December 2010. I might have been on vacation, but I had the stomach flu, sentencing me to a 24-hour quarantine on the ship.

In recent weeks, quarantines on cruise ships haven’t been limited to the unlucky passengers who step on board with a stomach bug. They have been far more widespread and concerning than that, such as in the case of the Diamond Princess quarantine in Japan last month, which started small and spread – quickly.

On February 1, a man tested positive for coronavirus six days after leaving the Diamond Princess, forcing Japan’s Ministry of Health to place the entire boat under a 14-day quarantine. By the end of the quarantine, more than 700 cases of coronavirus had been reported and six people had died. Since then, cruise ships have taken cautionary measures to ensure the safety of future passengers and prevent them from going through the same experience.

But quarantines on cruise ships are no new thing, even if they have taken on a new, more harrowing meaning as of late. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has an entire webpage devoted to guidance on how to handle and potentially quarantine general illnesses on cruise ships, because close-contact environments like that “can facilitate the transmission of influenza viruses and other respiratory viruses from person to person.”

That’s why, when I became ill on the Oasis of the Seas in 2010, it was off to isolation for me.

It’s worth clarifying that I didn’t get sick on the ship, but had contracted the illness before boarding – something my parents and I discovered after the fact. (Actually, we only really knew where it came from after I returned to school from winter break, spoke to two friends I’d hung out with before my trip, and found out they’d also spent the better part of their vacation huddled over a toilet.)

All we knew as we went to check in at the cruise-ship terminal that morning was that I might or might not have come down with food poisoning the night before, and I was feeling better.

Several hours later, when I started showing symptoms again, I was put under a 24-hour quarantine – an essential, if lonely, way to spend part of a supposed vacation.

I became sick just before we were about to take off from the port.

‘Central Park’ on the Oasis of the Seas in 2010. David Kalish

After vomiting following the ship’s safety-instruction training for passengers, my mum walked me to the ship’s infirmary.

The first thing they checked was whether we’d indicated a recent illness on our forms, which we had – food poisoning. They then asked where on the ship I’d been that day, and decided I might have a stomach virus. That’s when they handed me medicine and a bag of Gatorade powder, and told me to stay in my room for the next 24 hours.

While in my room that evening and the following morning, the cruise staff regularly called in to make sure I was feeling OK and adhering to my quarantine.

The author and her siblings in front of the cruise ship. David Kalish

I spent the day, much to any teenager’s delight, watching free movies courtesy of the cruise line while my parents alternated between checking in on me, bringing me food, and entertaining my siblings.

I was released that evening, after showing no further symptoms and being vomit-free for a full 24 hours. Since we’d taken our trip in December, we celebrated my release by having a Christmas dinner.

I have no doubt stories like mine happen all the time – someone gets sick while vacationing on a cruise ship, they’re put under quarantine until they get better out of concern for the rest of the ship’s passengers – and I’m lucky my situation was nowhere close to what’s happening as the coronavirus spreads across the globe.

But what I’m reminded of, looking back, are the implications of not taking precautions. Had I not gotten checked out or brushed off my illness due to fear of being kicked off of the ship before it even left, I could have put others at risk.

I’m also reminded that while it might not have been ideal to spend part of my vacation locked up and away from all of the activities, the precaution was essential for the health of the people on the ship. As we’ve seen with the coronavirus, illnesses do spread more quickly than we can imagine in such close environments – meaning that as fun as cruise ships might be, things can take a rapid downturn if illnesses aren’t properly managed.

And as someone who’s been through the stomach flu several times since this incident, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy – let alone some innocent fellow cruise goers.