The night before they debarked from what had turned into a month-long South American cruise, just as the Eclipse finished rounding the Baja, Buena Brown and her husband Frank slept with the windows open.
They felt the "fabulous fresh air," she recalled, a break from the "super windy and super cold" weather when the ship passed the mouth of the peninsula as they headed north into U.S. waters.
They were ready to return home, after two anxious weeks tacked on to a trip which began the last day of February on the Atlantic side of the continent, in Argentina.
The couple, three years into their marriage, was finishing a nice time together, something the two of them each wanted, she for a long time, to voyage from a place, Buenos Aires, that intrigued her by its connection to an uncommon first name.
Buena majored, 40 years earlier, in art, finished a career in graphic design, and now, with the freedom to revel in retirement, could savor a trip that brought her to fascinating museums and galleries, to Casa Rosado, Eva Peron’s "Pink House," and a visit to the cemetery where she is buried, to a boat trip through Andes Mountains wreathed in glacier, and a walk through the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, nearest the Antarctic.
"I wanted to see something called ‘the end of the world,’" Frank said.
"It was cold there and we did the tropical rain forest hike and got rained on," Buena said. "Walked five miles and got soaking wet."
During the fortnight since they first set sail, the coronavirus had exploded across the globe, and so Chilean authorities had denied the cruise ship entry into the port outside Santiago at the mid-March terminus of the trip. (See April 2 Times "A cruise Eclipsed."}
Now another two weeks had elapsed, as they drifted like the Flying Dutchman up past the Pacific coasts of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, into safe harbor in the United States. That last night, the Browns went to the cocktail party in the captain’s club, and bid farewell to the cruise amigos they had met on the ship.
"There were five couples who we were friends with," Buena said, "We had this special little deal, the same restaurant every night, we had dinner there almost every night.
"They would seat you with same waiter and same group. Often we sat next to similar people."
Some hugged each other goodbye, and then went to dinner, slept, and entered a country much changed from that extra day in the leap year when their cruise started.
Awoke with a dry cough
That following Sunday morning, March 28, "I woke up and had a dry cough and got a bottle of water out of the fridge," said Buena. "I kept drinking it, I had a tickle."
It didn’t concern her much, any fear outweighed by the scrupulous hygiene protocols adhered to by crew, that allayed fears and made for blithe passengers. "We just thought we had escaped unscathed," she said. "I guess when it’s too good to be true, it isn’t."
Buena didn’t eat breakfast, due to the hurried pace of the long-awaited morning, in which everyone had their temperature taken, their documentation secured and if they needed them, airline reservations, which in the Brown’s itinerary meant a five-hour cross-country flight to Charlotte, which "was not self-distanced at all.
"There was a couple in front of us, a couple to the left. There was least a couple on every single seat and there was a lot of coughing," said Buena. "I was more afraid of the flight home then. There was a possibility I got it on a flight, with a bunch of coughing people."
The Browns got back in the early morning hours of Tuesday, March 30, and by then Buena had begun taking her temperature.
"I’d been checking it. I didn’t think I felt right," she said. "I called the doctor and they said it wasn’t high enough on Tuesday."
Her temperature shot up to 101 on Wednesday evening but was gone the next morning, but she was too tired to get out of bed. On Friday she had no temperature, nothing above the usual 98.6.
"On Friday noon, I began thinking ‘what if?’ maybe I should call the doctor. It had been teetering at about 100," Buena said.
She called once again the office of Angela Castaneda, the advanced registered nurse practitioner in Dr. Ryan Pharr’s Apalachicola office, and let her know the temperature had gone above the 100.4 threshold that was important. ‘The office staff asked me to leave right away and drive to the back of the building. They wanted to see me now," she said.
"I called the office when I arrived and they promptly came out to care for me. I am so grateful for them. They did a strep and flu test and I waited in the car for the results," said Buena. "They came out after a few minutes and said they were negative."
This time Castaneda performed the COVID 19 test, in which a six-inch long swab, like a long Q-tip, is inserted in the cavity between the nose and mouth for 15 seconds and rotated several times.
"Angela assured me on Friday they were Fedexing it out before 2 p.m. She knew about my cruise from a recent checkup and expressed her concern for how my dream cruise had not turned out as expected," Buena said. "She is such a warm and caring person. She didn’t think I would hear anything before Monday or Tuesday."
Test results back by Sunday
On Saturday, as she awaited word, her appetite dwindled, having little interest or taste for food. She made corn chowder, a favorite comfort food to pass the time.
"When I sautéed some onions, I noticed I couldn’t smell it," Buena said. "I called out to Frank upstairs and asked if he could smell the onions. He said ‘the whole house smells.’ I said, ‘Whoa, I could not smell these cooking onions."
A day later, she knew why.
"They had the ability to get the test done really quickly," she said. "They called me Sunday morning. It was a positive test for COVID."
The news release issued by the county health department described her as "a 60-year-old female who is a Franklin County resident, a travel related case, directly linked to international travel (who) is isolated and will continue to remain isolated until cleared by public health officials.
"We are working closely with the patient, close contacts and healthcare providers to ensure proper precautions are being taken to prevent the spread of the virus," said Sarah Hinds, DOH administrator for Franklin and Gulf counties, in the release. "The individual will continue to follow CDC guidance related to travel and self-isolation."
Buena’s diagnosis, the only one on St. George Island, marks the second case in the county. The first case, announced by the health department April 3, is that of a non-resident, a 25-year-old woman from New York, who is under self-quarantine in Alligator Point.
Buena quickly made sure those around her knew, especially since some have underlying conditions that could make them particularly vulnerable. "I wanted my neighbors to know what was going on and to stay away," she said.
She also wanted to reach out to others, like one young mom on the island who had posted about her anxiety on Facebook.
"When I saw that girl and she's so scared, I thought ‘Should I send her a text message and tell her it’s me?’" Buena said. "Frank was fearful people are going to be angry and blaming us. I believe in being truthful but I was worried too and decided to wait. Perhaps she would get her results quickly too.
"I’ve been mostly upset," she said. "I hate to be the person bringing this plague. I don’t want to scare anybody. I don’t want anybody to get sick."
’We thought there was no way we could get sick’
Fact as, as those with the coronavirus go, Buena is about as innocent and self-protected as a carrier can be. She and her husband left on their travels well before anyone was cancelling cruises due to the illness, and once at sea, they were treated to a series of careful measures, and once released on land, they wore masks back home, and were advised precisely what to do in the event they fell ill.
"They were doing everything in their power to protect their people and us. Everywhere we went, people were out washing, squirting us with Purell, changing towels and sheets, disinfecting handrails," said Buena. "We thought there was no way we could get sick because they’re so meticulous."
A press inquiry to Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, which operates Celebrity Cruise, yielded a terse email reply.
"On behalf of our guests, we are in close coordination with various government and public health authorities relating to transport," it said. "This work continues. We are grateful for their guidance and support including ensuring the health and well-being of all."
Buena has reached out to her friends from the ship.
"I’ve contacted all of them and let them know I got it. One of the ladies has a low-grade fever now and has sinus congestion," Buena said. "The rest have been self-isolating and checking temperatures every day and seem to be fine."
Also who’s not getting hugs these days is Frank, 63, who so far has shown no signs of the coronavirus.
"He feels fine. Frank is very healthy," said his wife. "Every day on the ship they have a walking path and he was on it.
"He walks many miles a day, 12,000 and 20,000 steps a day. He did that on ship too," she said.
’I wouldn’t be honest if I told you I wasn’t scared’
Buena, of course, has continued to keep to herself, staying in the bedroom while Frank’s out and about around the house.
"I have walked down and picked up groceries that got dropped off down below the house. I haven’t walked down the driveway, I have not walked on the grass," she said. "We have a sun deck and I lay out in the sun for a couple hours and I grilled barbecued chicken.
"I made dinner last night, cooked chicken and rice and canned peas, everything boiled and heated," she said Monday morning. "I wear gloves and wash dishes and put them in the dishwasher."
She continues to feel pretty well, considering. "The only thing is I’m 60. I play tennis; I’m not skinny but I’m not overweight," Buena said. "I don’t have any health issues. I don’t take any medicines."
With the exception of Motrin for her back. "They said I could take Tylenol," she said. "I had this over-the-counter from six months ago, a generic brand, an expectorant and nasal decongest pill. I took that when I was coughing and it worked great."
Emotionally, she’s staying strong, confident that her taking the test will lead more to precise statistics, and not to complications.
"I owed it to the world, I thought ‘I need to get counted if I am sick, I know I should be counted," Buena said. ‘I just thought it should be accurate.
"I wouldn’t be honest if I told you I wasn’t scared, and think ‘What if I get worse?’" she said. "Yeah, I’m scared, it’s that little twinge in my side. I get a little paranoid but I try not to be."