What seemed like an idyllic delayed honeymoon, a small cruise to penguin-watch in Antarctica, went awry when the coronavirus pandemic erupted and Argentina decided almost everyone should stay home.
That is what happened to Oyster Bay native Sam Aitken, 32, and his wife of 18 months, Marisa, 30.
The couple — health care workers eager to get home and help their colleagues beat back the novel coronavirus — have been playing “whack a mole” with airlines for the past few days as flights from Buenos Aires keep popping up only to be canceled.
“It is a dynamic situation,” said Sam Aitken, diplomatically, by telephone from a 100-square-foot hotel room in Buenos Aires. “I should be and could be“ providing essential services at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center where he is a clinical pharmacist and his wife is a medical doctor and cancer researcher who cares for patients while earning her Phd.
“I would be very much in need, determining treatment protocols disseminating information and ensuring drug supplies are adequate,” he said.
"It’s terrible — that’s the right word for it.”
The U.S. State Department, on its website, says the Aitkens are among 13,500 Americans who have asked the agency for help to return home. About 5,700 people have done so, mostly on State Department chartered aircraft.
A State Department spokesman referred complaints Aitken aired in about its assistance — such as simply offering generic information and rendering little aid in instances when commercial flights were available, however fleetingly, to the website www.travel.state.gov.
Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Clove) in a statement said his office is trying to help about 17 constituents return home from Latin America and has already aided 10. “Please reach out to my office if you need help and together we will get through this.” Suozzi said.
“Coronavirus is bad enough. The last thing the Aitken family needs is to have this young couple stuck out of the country," Suozzi said. "We will do everything we can until they are safely back in the U.S.”
One of the couple’s worries is Marisa’s diabetes. Although she has sufficient supplies for now, they do not want to try to navigate Argentina's health care system in their rudimentary Spanish.
“The point is they are American citizens... and the U.S. Embassy has not been helpful,” said Sam Aitken’s mother, Pat Aitken, 63, of Calverton.
The former executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Bay turned to Suozzi, whose office she praised for staying in touch several times a day and vowing to help arrange a chartered flight should the one the couple are booked on just before midnight be scratched just like the previous ones.
After canceling flights at the last minute, some airlines don't want to give refunds, at least not without a fight, she said. “People can’t afford that,” she said, and adding to the stress, the credit card the couple was using was canceled due to suspicious activity, forcing them to use a standby.
Flag carriers appear to be dominating the flights out of Buenos Aires, said her son; the couple is paying about $5,000 for two seats on a Turkish airline.
And Sam Aitken's mother has another worry: “If our air space shuts down they are going to be stranded there.“
The couple met at the Houston hospital though they both graduated from SUNY Buffalo. They chose the Antarctica cruise on the MV Ocean Endeavor because Marisa Aitken wanted to see penguins, her husband said.
They and their fellow passengers, a total of 199, had their temperatures checked twice before boarding. When the ship returned one day early on March 16, they and the crew spent a week in quarantine, anchored off Ushuaia, until they got the all clear for a flight to Buenos Aires.