N.J. family leaves nothing to chance

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NEW YORK -- Kathleen Hart of Succasunna, N.J., is a registered nurse, so when she decided to take her oxygen-dependent mother on a family Caribbean vacation, she knew not to leave anything to chance.

Anyone who doubts the wisdom of preplanning and double-checking when traveling with someone with a disease such as emphysema should hold his or her nose and try breathing through a straw.

That is the level of difficulty with which Hart's mother, Eleanor Sinsimer, draws her breath, despite the oxygen that flows through the nasal cannula she wears day and night. Even with her medical background, Hart said she was floundering when it came to making the arrangements.

Months earlier, when Hart had made the initial bookings for air and sea, her mother had not been on oxygen full-time. Two months before the February trip, Sinsimer's situation worsened, resulting in changes to Hart's well-thought-out plans.

To begin with, the flight to Puerto Rico, where Hart and her mother would board Princess Cruises' Dawn Princess, had been booked on Continental. As it turned out, Continental only provides oxygen on flights within the 50 states, and it is against federal regulations to bring on board an oxygen tank from home.

Moreover, Hart needed to find a medical supplier in San Juan who could meet the plane with an oxygenator and a week's supply of portable canisters. (Cruise ships do not supply oxygen equipment.) But Hart's contacts in New Jersey could provide only a list of U.S. companies. "It was a little over a month before we had to leave, and I couldn't find anybody," Hart said. "If I had had a guide, it would have been a whole lot easier."

In desperation, Hart put in a call to Bonnie Furlong of Creative Meetings and Incentives in Denver, an agent Hart had come to know through her husband's business travel. "Bonnie really helped us," Hart said. "She did everything she could for us."

It was fortunate for Hart that Furlong had arranged a Princess cruise for a woman with emphysema once before and had some experience upon which to draw.

Furlong switched the family to American Airlines. "American was the only airline going to Puerto Rico that would take oxygen," Furlong said.

Furlong arranged for oxygen and a nonstop flight, an important detail because the airline provides oxygen only on the plane, not in the airport. Moreover, the $75 cost (about average) becomes $150 when the passenger changes planes because the oxygen must be supplied anew on each aircraft.

Next, Furlong called Oxycare, a medical supply company in Puerto Rico with English-speaking representatives that would rent the equipment and deliver it to the airport for $645.

Hart and her family left for Newark Airport Feb. 20 after making one more call to confirm the order for oxygen. "I was told the [request for] oxygen was in the computer," Hart said. And it was in the computer, but it was not preboarded on the plane as it should have been. Furlong said, "All the information was in there, but somehow it didn't get sent through the proper channels."

Tim Smith, an American Airlines spokesman, called Hart's experience "a rare occurrence." Smith said a disabled traveler booking on American should follow this procedure: Call the reservations office, ask to speak to the Special Assistance coordinator and explain the need. If unable to speak directly to the coordinator, book the flight and ask for a call back.

"Do it well ahead of time," Smith added. (A minimum of 48 hours' notice is required for oxygen.) "Special Assistance will call back within 48 hours if the travel is within 30 days. Otherwise, it will call back 60 days out and explain the procedures and what will take place aboard the aircraft," said Smith.

In Hart's case, the airline delayed the flight for the family and provided the oxygen in short order, Hart said.

Oxycare met the family at the airport in San Juan. "They were wonderful," Hart said.

The cruise was smooth sailing until the fifth day, when Hart's mother developed a respiratory infection. She spent the last night of the cruise in the infirmary, where she was tended to by a doctor and two nurses. "They were excellent with me," Sinsimer said. "Somebody was there all night long, just like a regular hospital."

The cost of hospitalization is not included in the price of the cruise. Further, Medicare will not cover health care provided by foreign vessels, and neither will some private insurance companies.

Hart had taken additional insurance through Travel Assure, but her mother's HMO Medicare, Physicians Health Services, did cover the bill. Travel Assure, which is offered through travel agencies, also covers trip interruptions, cancellations and lost baggage.

By the time the ship arrived in San Juan, Hart's mother was well enough to fly home. Hart said she called ahead to confirm that the oxygen would be on board the plane, and "everyone I spoke to told me not to worry. It's in the computer."

"It was really funny," said Hart.
American Association for Respiratory Care
Phone: (972) 243-2272
Breathin' Easy Travel Guide
Phone: (707) 252-9333
Web: www.oxygen4transport .com
Oxycare
Phone: (787) 269-5300

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