Farah Toutounchian, diagnosed with coronavirus, refused to be escorted to an ambulance.
Instead, she sat in protest, cross-legged on the floor just outside a gangway to the Diamond Princess cruise ship on which she was a passenger, quarantined at the Port of Yokohama. Surrounded by people in hazmat gear, she begged for one thing: to be taken to the same hospital that was already caring for her husband, who also had novel coronavirus.
“I was getting ready to die and I wanted to be next to my husband.”
Two hours later, the San Fernando Valley resident got her wish. Not only was she taken to the hospital that was treating her husband, Mohammad Toutounchian, but they were allowed to share a room.
That was in February. At the time, it wasn’t certain that either would live.
On Wednesday, March 18, they couple returned to their home in Tarzana. They’re thrilled to be alive, and to be home.
And they have a hopeful message for their fellow Americans as the country embarks into unchartered waters.
The Toutounchians enjoy traveling, and are regulars on cruise ships. This one, which launched from Tokyo on Jan. 20, took them across Southeast Asia for two weeks.
On Feb. 4, they were scheduled to disembark in Yokohama and fly home. Instead, at least one of the more than 3,700 people on the ship tested positive for novel coronavirus, prompting the quarantine. Eventually, more than 700 passengers and crew members would test positive – making it at the time the largest concentration of cases outside Wuhan, China, where the virus originated.
Mohammad Toutounchian said he was among the first to be stricken.
It began, he explains, with a pain in his legs, something he felt in his bones. He initially thought it was soreness from a walk the couple took that day on the ship. Even under quarantine, passengers were allowed to briefly leave their cabins and go out for walks, a certain number at a time, as long as they kept a distance from each other.
But soon, he said, he also had a headache. And a runny nose. And “something in my chest.” He wanted to cough, he said, but couldn’t. A day later, he had a fever.
Farah gave him Tylenol and tended to him, while phoning – repeatedly – the ship’s special “fever line.” After being ignored, she says, for a couple of days, she fired off an email to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo:
“I need help and medicine.”
Soon, Japanese doctors were on the ship and testing her husband for the virus. On Feb. 11, he was taken by ambulance to the Japanese Red Cross Hospital in Tokyo.
But that left Farah, 61, alone just as she was beginning to feel the same, flu-like aches and fever. Already worried for her husband, she began to worry for herself.
Four days later, on Feb. 15, she found herself on the floor, crying, fighting against the plan to take her to a hospital that was hours away from her husband.
Even now, she becomes emotional recalling what happened next.
“They treated me even worse than a rat in a cage,” she said.
“I was hysterical. I was not myself. I was scared. But I was not going to go.”
For more than two hours, they tried to convince her, but they didn’t try to carry her away. “They were afraid of the virus,” she said.
She called one of their sons in the United States, who in turn contacted the U.S. Embassy. Soon, the health workers in the hazmat suits agreed to take her to the hospital where her husband was being treated.
Together in the hospital
The reunion was joyful. Doctors added a bed in Mohammad’s room so the couple could be together and lift each other’s spirits.
“When I saw her,” he said, “I wasn’t worried anymore.”
Farah took a photo and sent it to their two sons, in San Diego and Kentucky.
But about two hours later, she fainted. And after she came to, she fainted again.
“They put me on an IV,” she said. “I had been under so much pressure.”
While Farah was sick, Mohammad was sicker.
He was battling double pneumonia. For 14 days, his fever wouldn’t break. Every night, he slept on towels that would become drenched in sweat. Farah changed his towels and sheets some six or seven times every day. When the doctor told them both lungs were infected, and that he might next be placed on a ventilator to help him breathe, the couple again called their sons.
“We went over our will,” Farah said. “We said, ‘Be strong. This is what you need to do.’ That was the moment I realized this was it.”
But Mohammad never needed the ventilator. And both began recovering with the help of doctors and nurses the couple can’t stop praising.
“They were wonderful,” she said.
During their last two weeks in the hospital, they were tested every 48 hours for the virus. They tested negative.
On Friday, March 13 – the day President Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic – Mohammad was removed from the government’s no fly list. On Monday, March 16, Farah got her OK to fly back home. A day later they boarded the long flight back to California.
Now – even as California shelters in place to slow a disease that Mohammad and Farah probably won’t get again – the couple are enjoying the simple things: sleeping in their own bed, sipping tea in their own kitchen, the smell of the new rain in their own backyard.
“We look at life completely different,” Farah said. “Coming home, and seeing the plants, knowing that spring is coming. I cherish every moment.”
Mohammad, 70, said he is thankful to his wife, who made sure he was taken to the hospital and who insisted on being reunited and staying by his side. Being together, they said, made all the difference in his healing process; in their healing process.
The couple has been married 44 years. He’s an engineering consultant and she’s a financial adviser. They moved to the United States from Iran about 40 years ago.
In normal times, they would have spent Thursday, March 19, celebrating the Persian New Year with family and friends. But not this year. And that’s part of the message they want to relay to fellow Americans.
“We have to be together,” Farah said. “And fight this virus by staying home.”
While it’s been two months since they saw family and friends — people they miss — they’re OK with waiting a bit longer, until the threat of coronavirus passes. It’s all part of being careful, they say, even as they add that hysteria isn’t called for.
“Don’t panic,” Farah said. “The minute we panic, we make the wrong decision.”
There’s no need to fret over toilet paper or cupboards that aren’t full. Those things, they said, will work themselves out.
“Don’t bother hoarding all this food. We don’t need it,” Farah said
“We have to take care of each other.”
Mohammad agreed: “There is a light at the end of this darkness.”
“We are an example that things can get better,” Farah said. “We went through it and we made it.”
Other Americans, she added, will make it too.