Two Ruby Princess passengers on living with ‘long COVID’

Former Ruby Princess cruise ship passengers Henry Karpik on the left, and Don Jones. Both men are bumping their elbows and are smiling.

Henry Karpik (left) and Don Jones

Jeremy Lasek – PHAA

Henry Karpik was blunt.

“I was supposed to be dead,” he said.

Having been given what he calls “a second shot at life”, the former passenger of the cruise ship Ruby Princess andCOVID19 -survivor, Henry Karpik, recently celebrated a quiet but joyous Father’s Day at home with his family.

“It was beautiful, it was a great Father’s Day,” the Wollongong man recalled Henry, 73, was one of the first people in Australia to contract COVID-19.

That he survived is a miracle, yet Henry and his best friend and fellow passenger on the ill-fated cruise ship are still suffering the effects of that harrowing time. Their condition is now commonly referred to as ‘long-COVID’.

Before contracting the virus, Henry was active. He walked daily, was a regular at the gym, and enjoyed his golf.

Now, he lives with the ongoing symptoms of fatigue, shortness of breath, and a general lack of strength.

“I know that I’ve slowed down a fair bit and I do get tired through the day,” Henry explained.

“I still have a problem with my breathing, I can’t do simple things like hanging the washing out or making the bed.

“I still have problems with my hands and fingers. When I was in ICU I couldn’t hold the phone; I couldn’t close my fists. Even today, I still can’t close my fists. I can’t even hold coins in my hand.

“The doctors have told me it will probably take about three years before all my muscles and joints get back together.”

Eighteen months ago, Henry, his wife Sue, and five close friends set sail from Sydney on the Ruby Princess.

Of the 2,650 passengers on board, 900 became COVID infected, and 28 died.

Henry counts himself lucky not to have been number 29.

The former detective spent a month in a coma in Wollongong Hospital’s ICU.

Henry and his entire family are now fully vaccinated. He urges others to get vaccinated as quickly as possible.

“If I could’ve got the vaccine before I went on that cruise, I would have,” Henry said.

His wife, Sue, an experienced registered nurse, has seen the full impact of COVID first-hand, and knows how close she was to losing her husband of more than 50 years.

As Henry’s condition deteriorated, doctors feared the worst. Sue was told to start preparing for a funeral.

The Karpiks put Henry’s survival down to modern medicine, and the power of prayer.

Henry knows nothing of the month he spent on life support as the first COVID patient in Wollongong Hospital.

“My mother told me after I came out of hospital, she prayed so hard that the windows in her room were rattling, she was praying that hard,” Henry said.

“When I finally woke up, I was flat on my back. I felt like I was chained to the bed. I couldn’t move. I didn’t have any strength.

“I had tubes and things hanging out of me. The nurse was sitting alongside me, wiping my forehead with a sponge and saying ‘you are a very lucky man.’

I didn’t know what she was talking about.

‘She was saying I was lucky because I was supposed to be dead.”

Henry spent months in learning to walk again and regaining his strength.

“I’ve definitely been given a second shot at life and I really appreciate what the doctors and nurses in the ICU did for me.”

One of Henry’s closest friends, Don Jones, another former police officer, also contracted COVID19, as did his wife. Don was hospitalised for eight days.

“I know I must have been pretty crook because the doctor asked the wife whether she wanted to be there if I passed over the night,” Don explained.

“I honestly don’t recall very much.

“COVID is extremely infectious. You don’t even see it coming. You don’t even know you have it when you first have it and you’re infecting other people.”

The 84-year-old is also struggling with the effects of long-COVID.

“I suffer with fatigue and shortness of breath,” Don said. “Certainly, I’m not the person I was 18 months ago.

“I look at it this way, I’m in the twilight zone anyhow, so you just push along and just hope everything gets better.”

Don and Henry may have slowed, but they continue their daily walks.

“I think the main thing is you’ve got to push yourself, that’s why we walk,”

Don said.

“As they say, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

“You just hope for the best, I think it’s (COVID-19) helped age catch up with me. That’s one of the unfortunate things but that’s what life is, and you’ve just got to push on.’

Both men shared their experiences to support the #VaxTheIllawarra campaign.

“Now that there is a vaccine, we hope that people take that opportunity to keep themselves safe and prevent ever going through anything like myself and our friends went through after catching COVID,” Don said.

Henry encouraged people to get vaccinated not only for themselves, but for their family and those closest to them.

‘They all love you,” Henry added.

“Look after yourself. Get a jab. It’ll save you. Don’t put your family through what I did to my family. Don’t put them through that same stress.”

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