The stunning birth --and survival -- of a 1 1/2 pound baby to a Utah mother aboard a cruise ship is being heralded as a miracle-- and according to cruise experts, rightly so.
While ships have medical staff and equipment to deal with general emergencies, they're not required --or even prepared --to handle the specific needs of premature babies, especially one this small.
"I saw the doctor holding him but I didn't hear him crying. My motherly instincts kicked in and I just asked over and over again if I could hold my baby."
The story began when Emily Morgan, along with her husband Chase, and their 3-year-old daughter Chloe, were on the second day of their seven-day cruise aboard the Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas. Emily, who was in her 23rd week of pregnancy and due in December, had been given the okay by her doctor to go on the trip, but she starting experiencing labor pains after she had turned in for bed.
"I started having contractions late at night and I had a terrible pain in my stomach,'" Morgan told FoxNews.com. "Around one o'clock in the morning, we called the medical team because I knew the baby was coming."
Just 30 minutes later the baby boy, Haiden, was born. But doctors initially refused to let Emily hold him. Due to the amount of blood she had lost and the newborn's size, she says the doctors told her she had miscarried.
"I saw the doctor holding him but I didn't hear him crying. My motherly instincts kicked in and I just asked over and over again if I could hold my baby," she recalled. "They initially told me the baby wasn't breathing so I was crying and my husband was crying but the doctors were really concerned about my health so they still wouldn't let me see him."
But the story soon took a miraculous turn.
While Haiden was initially pronounced dead, doctors were able to revive the infant and told her that he was still breathing 45 minutes after the birth. But with no incubators on board, the medical team made due with towels and heated saline pads to keep the premature infant warm. A nurse fed him a dextrose solution for the next several hours.
After being alerted to the incident, the ship’s captain made every effort to get the newborn to shore, soon docking in San Juan, the nearest port, two hours ahead of schedule. Local doctors are saying those hours likely saved the baby’s life.
Stewart Chiron, a veteran cruise industry expert known as The Cruise Guy, says that the quick thinking medical staff pulled off a near impossible feat. Not only are cruise lines not equipped to handle this type of emergency, they have very strict guidelines to try and prevent something like this from happening.
“Many of these ships have extensive medical facilities and well-trained staff onboard but they usually don’t have someone trained in delivery and they are not full-fledged hospital emergency rooms,” Chiron told FoxNews.com. He explained that most cruise lines enforce strict policies regarding pregnant passengers, and he has even seen expectant mothers turned away at the dock.
For Royal Caribbean, Disney and Princess cruise lines, the cut off is at 24 weeks, regardless of whether or not a doctor has written a note permitting a patient's passage. Pregnant women must also sign a statement stating they are within compliance of the guidelines.
By comparison, air travel policies are more flexible, as passengers are on board an aircraft just hours as compared to days at sea. Major airlines, including United, American and Delta, permit pregnant women to travel through their eighth month without a doctor's note. As women approach their due date, airlines will often require some type medical certification that the passenger is fit to fly.
So what type of emergencies can cruise lines handle?
There are no specific laws regarding how many doctors or caregivers must be aboard a ship at any time, but Cruise Line International Association members--which include most of the world's largest lines-- follow guidelines stipulated by the American College of Emergency Physicians. Ships are best equipped to handle episodes that involve quarantine or other such illnesses.
In terms of facilities, the guidelines dictate that cruise ships have “at least one examination / stabilization room”; “at least one ICU room”; and maintain “minimum number inpatient beds of one bed per 1,000 passengers and crew.” Physicians aboard must have at least three years experience, be competent with broken bones and other orthopedic issues and at least one doctor present must “certified in advanced trauma life support.” Ships carrying passengers under the age of 12 should have at least one doctor certified in Pediatric Advanced Life Support --but nothing is stipulated about obstetricians.
Even with competent medical staff and basic supplies, in the case of serious emergency situations, ships look to dock as soon as possible in order to get patients to a hospital.
Chiron says passengers --especially with health issues --should keep these facts in mind when booking a cruise.
“Elderly patients, pregnant women, and families traveling with small kids should consider the full cruise itinerary. If you’re sailing off the coast of a country that may not have the best medical, or pediatric, care, you could be in real trouble,” says Chiron.
But even, with the best preparation, there are some cases that could lead to six-figure hospital bills.
“Any cruiser should make sure they have the right travel insurance, and just about all cruises are considered international travel,” Chiron explained. “But a lot of policies only cover domestic incidents so it’s important to check with your insurer before setting sail.”
Chiron recommends April, CSA, Travelex, and Travel Insured for cruisers. And if you’re not sure where to start, the website SquareMouth.com is the Kayak of travel insurance.
After docking in San Juan, the Morgans were taken to a hospital where they waited for three days as Haiden’s condition stabilized before being medically evacuated to Florida. Haiden is currently in Miami receiving treatment at the Primary Children's Hospital. So far, the couple is thankful for how things turned out.
"Royal Caribbean has been in contact with us weekly, if not more. I don't really know what more they could have done given the situation and one of the nurses was especially amazing."
The family has set up a GoFundMe account to aid with medical bills and the family’s stay in Miami.
But this case is a reminder that pregnant mothers travel at their own risk.
“Thankfully this story has a happy ending for the couple but cruise ships are not floating hospitals,” Chiron says.