Ever since emphysema made Johnnie Mae Larrieu dependent on oxygen 24 hours a day, travel has meant going only as far as Riverside to visit her sister.
"I used to go salmon fishing in Oregon every year, but I'm not able to do that any more," said Larrieu, who lives in Wilmington.
But in about a week, she will be boarding a ship in Miami for an eight-day Caribbean cruise with stops in Nassau, San Juan and St. Thomas.
"It's wonderful," Larrieu said as she contemplated the trip. "It gives you a new incentive to live to think you aren't stuck in the house 24 hours a day."
Traveling With Group
And when she sails, she will not be alone. About 15 other people with breathing problems--most of them requiring oxygen--will be with her in a special medically supervised travel program sponsored by Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance and Research Medical Center in Kansas City. The travelers, along with their spouses, will fly separately to Florida and meet on board ship April 13.
While all passengers aboard cruise ships are pampered, this group will be accorded special care by a staff of nurses, respiratory therapists and pulmonary physicians from the hospitals.
"People with respiratory problems can become very ill and there is nothing more terrifying than not being able to catch your breath," said Mary Burns, a registered nurse and pulmonary rehabilitation supervisor at Little Company of Mary. "They are concerned about getting very far from the hospitals."
But with professionals aboard ship, the people can relax and have a good time--"and so can their spouses, who tend to constantly watch them."
Lorna Eschborn of Rolling Hills Estates, who also has emphysema, rarely needs oxygen and is used to traveling on her own. But she said she feels better about taking this cruise "with others who understand my problems and can help me."
The South Bay travelers are graduates of pulmonary education programs at Little Company of Mary or other area hospitals. Those programs, according to Burns, help people understand their respiratory problems--primarily emphysema, but also asthma and chronic bronchitis--and live with them through more efficient breathing, physical conditioning, medication and panic control.
"One problem they have is that they get very fearful of losing their breath and not catching it again," she said.
Although travel for the handicapped is becoming more common and there even are travel agents specializing in it, Burns said making arrangements for people on oxygen can be a time-consuming exercise in persuasion even when it involves a hospital group. "We started working on this last August," she said.
She said it took correspondence and personal meetings to persuade Eastern Airlines and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines to take the group.
"Oxygen is safe, but there is a lot of concern on the part of cruise lines and airlines about this," she said. "People feel it is explosive, but it isn't, though it does conduct fire easily."
Burns said that when Little Company of Mary organized its first cruise--a three-day trip from San Pedro to Ensenada on the cruise ship Azure Seas a year ago--it had to get the Coast Guard to certify that the group was not dangerous.
"They classified us with rocket fuel, but we were able to show that our equipment was safe," she said.
While in the Caribbean, Burns said, people will carry portable oxygen containers in shoulder bags about half the size of a grocery sack. They will have larger containers in their staterooms with a 9- or 10-day oxygen supply.
On the flights to and from Florida, the airline will supply oxygen and there will be special masks for the travelers to wear.
"In flight, we will monitor and watch them, measuring the oxygen level of the blood," Burns said. On board ship, there will be group exercises and seminars on pulmonary disease.
If the Azure Seas was any indication, Burns said, arm exercises--performed on casino slot machines--will be the most popular.
Doctor's OK Needed
In order to qualify for the cruise, participants had to supply medical records and get permission from their doctors. Burns said some were turned down: "We just didn't think they were well enough to go."
She said the mild humidity of the Caribbean is the "right level" to prevent problems the travelers are prone to, including shortness of breath and respiratory infections.
Burns said they should be able to enjoy all shipboard activities, including dancing. "They can put their oxygen down and dance around it," she said. "The object is to enable them to lead a more normal life."
Eschborn said her greatest problem while traveling is tiring easily, and she has been walking on a regular basis to build herself up. "It will be nice to have the staff around, but we don't expect them to baby-sit us," she said. "They'll have a hard time staying up as late as we do."