The ambulance turned the final corner, bringing me to journey’s end. Even though I had been strapped into the gurney for the entire ride, the rear window gave me a clear view of all the familiar landmarks. And now, at last, this difficult journey was also passing into the rearview mirror of life’s travels and trials. Soon the events of the last few days would be nothing more than memories, and for that I would be thankful.
A gentle stop, a swing of a door, the clinks of the final shackles being released, and there was my beautiful bride, overjoyed to see me, just as I was her, and home at last! And so it is very important to remember that the events described here do have a very happy ending. But let me rewind the clock back to Christmas Eve…
The really big item that I took away from these events is that everything seems so very nebulous and vague, right up until that moment when someone close to you says “… have tested positive.” It reminds me of that phrase often attributed to Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth!” And that was what it was like for me. A solid punch, as someone I’d been in close quarters with just a few days before tested positive. I was fully vaccinated and boosted, but at that moment I somehow knew that the sore throat and blocked sinuses that had arrive so very quickly were the first signs of impending doom.
It would be three more days before a lateral flow test would confirm this, and for those 72 hours I felt rotten. I had already begun isolating myself from my family (and other animals), even though those first days returned negative tests. I missed Christmas Dinner, Boxing Day cold-cuts, and any attempt at going for a curry or getting fish and chips. I had the stamina for a walk along the river bank, but wasn’t able to follow up with a dedicated walk around the supermarket. I love walking around grocery stores on my travels, and even more so in the UK. I normally stockpile Ribena, Marmite and Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, but now I couldn’t find the strength. I watched “Dave” channel and went to bed ridiculously early, only to find myself struggling to get out of bed the next morning. The Travel Architect herself was concerned, but still convinced that the test results were trustworthy and that I was “only” in the clutches of the bad cold she’d given me. To that end, she plied me with various medicines – non-drowsy this and cough suppressant that. It was like being nursed to health by Keith Moon.
And then the lateral flow turned positive and all hell broke loose! Some family members went straight to DEFCON 1, pursuing the guidance given in a 1983 pamphlet on Soviet Biological Warfare Attacks, whilst others rolled their eyes and asked when they’d be able to go to the pubs again. Me? I was caught in the aggravating nature of the English Bank Holiday system. You see, in order to enact our evacuation insurance, I needed confirmation from a PCR test, but because Christmas and Boxing Day fell on a weekend, the Monday and Tuesday were “make-up Bank Holidays” (quite rightly so, America). This meant that getting a confirmation test would mean staying in the small town for a few more days (and missing our flight home), or traveling to London where tests are far more available…
We walked from the London hotel to the testing centre, and arrived an hour early. We were told “No problem” and so, gagging on another swab I gave my saliva to the youthful 20 something Manchester United fan who seemed to have everything under control. In a matter of hours, our fate would be decided…
…And so it was! Positive for me, and negative for the lady…
At this point the Travel Architect was clear for flight for the next 24 hours, and the seats were first class! “Go!” I exclaimed. “It only makes sense”. She had a travel window, and that window was draped in velvet. With tears in her eyes, she left me, only to text a picture of the mojito she was drinking in the first-class lounge three hours later… At nine am…
The next couple of days were very repetitious. To ensure that I didn’t go stir crazy, I would set an alarm, shower, dress, watch the city out of the window with a cup of hotel coffee (from the room) and restrict my TV watching until a suitable hour. I was too ill to do push-ups and crunches, otherwise I would have incorporated those also. Occasionally my routine would be interrupted with a phone call from the evacuation company informing me of a new complication that was minor in their eyes but catastrophic to me. But eventually I was forwarded my evacuation plan, which tacked 50 or so hours to my hotel imprisonment, but also gave me hope… It also necessitated calling the hotel desk on two different occasions and indicating that “my plans had changed” and I needed to stay on another night.
Two days after the Travel Architect departed, I boarded a non-emergency ambulance at 6:00 am (strategically waiting a half block from the hotel front doors, so as not to raise eyebrows… or pulses), and was shuttled directly to a runway of London’s Luton Airport. There, a German doctor and nurse boarded the ambulance and gave me the news. I was to fly in this Gulf Stream 5 charter jet in “a bubble”. My brain went immediately to that Seinfeld episode (you know the one) and I thought being a “bubble boy” would be a minor inconvenience, but no, they insisted I spend the entire flight locked in a hermetically sealed coffin! My “bubble” was going to be my tomb!
Stepping out of the ambulance and into the pouring rain, I was connected to a drip, oxygen, a pulse-ox monitor, blood pressure cuff, and cardiovascular sensors. As the rain came down, the doctor’s final pre-flight action was to give me, from his gloved hand, a single pill in a blister pack. Leaning in to be heard above the whine of the turbofan engine just feet away, he said with his thick Bavarian accent, “Take this. You may want to use it.” Great, my doctor was Herman Göring! Then, without ceremony, the plastic lid was locked into place, the airtight seals checked, and the cargo (me) loaded onto the plane. It would be over 10 hours before my sarcophagus would be opened…
People have asked me about this portion of the trip a great deal, and so I want to give you the bullet points:
- I was soaking wet the entire time, wearing jeans and a woolen shirt.
- I didn’t eat or drink, I was on a drip, and I didn’t want the humiliation of trying to go to the bathroom in the tube.
- I had to communicate with the outside with a “Magna-Doodle”.
- No movies, no books, no music.
- The blood-pressure cuff auto-inflated uncomfortably every hour, but the doctor didn’t take any notice.
- I spent a lot of time focused on not feeling claustrophobic, as I was trapped inside a tube.
- Of course I didn’t like it.
- I could only just raise my head and knees, and I felt like a veal calf.
- No, they did not open the bubble for any reason, even when I started to hyperventilate due to pressure changes upon landing in Canada to refuel. They simply put a drug in the drip line, and I regained consciousness later.
- Both before and after the flight the doctor said to me “You are very brave,” and that meant something to me.
When we finally landed at Minneapolis, I knew that the most anxious time was upon me. After taxiing, the plane finally stopped, but it would be twenty more minutes before that suffocating lid came off. I was being maneuvered in my canister about the cabin, unable to hear the muffled conversations between unknown figures taking place on the other side of the plastic – this was the true test. But – at last – the lid came off, the devices were removed, and I was free… only to walk twenty feet before being strapped into a gurney in the back of an ambulance…
Three days after landing, there came a knock on the door, and I was presented with a bouquet of flowers from the insurance company that had put the whole plan together. I was flattered. I know what I endured sounds tough, and it was, but the end result was that I was picked up from the door of my hotel and returned to the door of my home, just as promised. I had paid hundreds of dollars for this insurance, when the real cost of the event was tens of thousands of dollars. It will, perhaps, be a singular travel experience for me, and yet, I can’t help but hope the German medical team made it back safe and sound to their homes and families, and had a chance to ring in the New Year with the ones they love. After all, because of them, that’s exactly what I got to do.
The whole damn English COVID Christmas Saga:
- Nervous But Committed: Why I’m Traveling Abroad During the Pandemic
- Omigod, Omicron! COVID Travel Abroad Is Not for the Faint of Heart!
- Uncertainty & Stress, Joy & Cheer, Illness & Disappointment: It’s Christmas in England!
- Getting Back to America If You Contract COVID Abroad: A Handy Guide
- A COVID Christmas Carol (A Blog Takeover by The Husband)