CLEARWATER -- — A Clearwater couple is finally getting help in an American hospital in Turkey after Azamara Club Cruises abandoned them at a rural hospital, leaving them with only hand gestures and guidebook Turkish to try to arrange surgery for a broken hip, they said.
Dodge Melkonian, an 89-year-old World War II veteran and businessman, is now recovering at an American hospital in Istanbul, where he eventually was transported for hip surgery.
The procedure’s success was only possible, said his wife, Jill Melkonian, 65, because of two persistent Tampa Bay-area travel agents and a Turkish tour guide who befriended the couple and even donated his blood for the surgery.
Jill Melkonian emailed the Tampa Bay Times from Turkey on Monday to say the hospital food is delicious, the Turkish people are "heartwarming and kind" and the visit has been full of "unexpected beautiful moments."
A real estate agent, Melkonian said she and her husband have visited nearly 200 countries and intend to keep traveling despite the difficulties they’ve endured in the last week.
Their international saga began Aug. 19, a day after they departed on a 12-day cruise to Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Bulgaria and other countries through Azamara, which is owned by Royal Caribbean. They got the free trip after their cabin caught fire on a previous Royal Caribbean cruise to southeast Asia in March 2012.
At 1:30 a.m. Aug. 19, Dodge Melkonian rose from bed and stumbled in the dark.
The ship’s doctor diagnosed him with a broken hip, and the cruise line transported the husband and wife to Bartin, a rural province in northern Turkey on the Black Sea. The hospital there had no intensive care unit, and it was clear they needed to move elsewhere.
Jill Melkonian and others tried to get her husband transferred by helicopter, but Azamara and On Call International, the travel insurance company that offers insurance for the cruise line, delayed, according to Melkonian.
Friends arranged for a government ambulance, but On Call intervened and insisted on using its own ambulance, arriving more than 24 hours later to pick up the couple for a seven-hour ride over rugged roads.
The ambulance had no doctor or nurse. And by the time they arrived in Istanbul, Dodge Melkonian’s medication was not enough to shut out the pain.
As of Monday, On Call still hadn’t put in writing how much of the medical costs it will cover.
The cruise line says it has worked closely with the couple. “We helped arrange transportation via ambulance to the closest area hospital. Once ashore, we worked closely with the travel insurance provider, as they have the expertise to deal with local authorities and medical facilities,’’ said a Royal Caribbean spokesperson via a statement. A company representative met with the couple Tuesday in Turkey.
Tampa area travel agents Tammy Levent and Judy Sontag of Elite Travel Management contacted Sen. Bill Nelson, who called the incident “outrageous’’ and in turn contacted the American Embassy in Turkey.
The agents also contacted Turkish tour operator Okan Kutlu of TSC Travel, who has spent the past week haggling with the insurance company, the cruise line, the U.S. Embassy and the Turkish government on behalf of the Melkonians. He translates for the couple and visits them every day after he finishes work at 7 p.m.
And it was Kutlu’s A-positive blood donation that made it possible for Melkonian to get the surgery.