EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated several times Monday, March 9, to keep up with breaking developments with a Grand Forks couple who had been stranded on the cruise ship Grand Princess.
A quarantined cruise ship that has been a Grand Forks couple's temporary home for 11 days docked Monday in Oakland, Calif., amid passenger cheers and intense national attention.
And for Kari and Paul Kolstoe, the frustrating time aboard the ship has come to an end. They sent a text to the Herald at approximately 7:30 p.m. (central) Monday, notifying the newspaper that they were off the ship and on their way to Travis Air Force Base.
It was a day of unknowns for the Kolstoes, who early in the day were told they would not be among the first to leave the ship, despite Mrs. Kolstoe's ongoing battle with cancer. For many, that could have meant a wait of at least a day or two, according to early media reports.
Then, late in the afternoon, there were hints that the Kolstoes soon would be leaving the ship.
And later yet, they were off the ship and on a bus, being transported to the base, which is about halfway between Oakland and Sacramento in northern California.
The Kolstoes boarded the ship Feb. 21 for a trip to Hawaii; during the cruise, however, confirmed coronavirus cases were linked to the Grand Princess. In the days since, more cases have emerged, forcing passengers -- including the Kolstoes -- to be quarantined in their rooms. The long-planned cruise was intended as a much-needed break from Kari’s cancer treatment.
She has stage four cancer and is immunosuppressed. They were scheduled to arrive back to the mainland in time to leave San Francisco on March 7, then to make it back to Grand Forks in time for her next round of treatment. A March 4 note found on the door of their cabin informed them of the discovery of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.
At least 21 people aboard the ship have tested positive for the illness.
“I have a lot of pain that we are managing with medications,” Kari Kolstoe said of her cancer-related issues. “My husband keeps track of that. ... I’m on some pretty heavy opioids at this point.”
As for leaving the ship, they originally hoped for an earlier time slot, but were told it was unlikely. In an interview near midday Monday, she said it didn't look promising for an early exit; later in the day, she texted the Herald that things were looking up and they could be off the ship sometime later Monday.
"We just got word that we are getting off the boat today," she told the Herald after 5 p.m. (central time) Monday. But she also said at that time that she had no idea where they were going.
According to various news sites, including The Washington Post, there were buses and ambulances lined up at the docking area Monday. At least some of the buses were to bring passengers to Travis Air Force Base, the Post reported.
Passengers were seen cheering and waving towels as the ship came into the port, despite knowing that departure for many could still be days away.
“We were so hoping that we could get some priority status, but apparently there are some folks that are worse than I am,” Kari Kolstoe said early Monday, her voice breaking. “Maybe acutely sick. I don’t know.”
A doctor in a hazardous material suit knocked on their door around 3 a.m. Monday to ask what she needed to disembark, and whether she requires a wheelchair. He didn’t have any information as to when they would be able to leave.
“Needless to say … I didn’t sleep for the night,” she said.
Unable to leave their room, they have spent the days in the cabin trying to get information from television -- and information has been hard to come by. She said she doesn't blame Princess Cruises for the lack of communication. Decisions, she said, “are being made up the food chain.”
“We pretty much watch TV,” she said. “My husband has been able to do a little bit of work online.”
She said they spent their time trying to avoid going stir-crazy, though it’s difficult for her to concentrate on reading, and she isn’t much interested in the 99 movies made available by Princess.
Paul Kolstoe made light of the situation: “I don’t know, I’m trapped with a beautiful woman,” he said. He added his responsibility is to support his wife.
Food has been delivered to their room, as well as other essentials. The items were placed outside guests’ doors, which is where the guests left their trash as well. The bed, she said, took up half of the room, and they didn't have a balcony. Sunday evening's dinner menu had two choices: goulash or marinated vegetables with tofu.
“They’re trying real hard," she said of the meals. "But quite frankly, it’s horrible.”
Meanwhile, the Kolstoes have appeared in national media, including a Fox News report on Sunday and a CNN report on Saturday. Her story also has been shared on social media. She said she has heard comments that have been hurtful, which has added to her stress.
“People are (saying) ‘Well why is she on a cruise in the first place?’, not understanding that we’ve had this cruise booked for a year and half, and it was a break in our treatment,” she said. The cruise was supposed to be a welcome respite from her “cancer life.”
In a telephone interview with the Herald, Scott Hennen, the Kolstoes' brother-in-law, said it's disappointing that the couple's decision to go on a vacation is drawing criticism.
“It worked out perfectly in the window, and again she’s fighting stage four cancer, she’s going to want to live her life,” said Hennen. “I’m amazed, honestly, at that element of social media that would be critical of somebody with stage four cancer that is in a challenging situation, quarantined on a ship.”