Quarantined in the Park Hyatt, Tokyo
It was almost predictable: The night before we left for our vacation, our 14-year old son came down with a low-grade fever. On the 11-hour flight to Tokyo, Ethan’s fever spiked to 102.5. He coughed and moaned, and was not getting better. An hour into the flight, the attendant announced pleasantly that Japan’s quarantine team would be coming on board at Narita to check temperatures. Everyone needed to complete a “health questionnaire.” Swine Flu had reached the pandemic level, but there were only a few cases in Tokyo and the Japanese were determined to keep it from spreading in the world’s most populous city.
On the ground, we propped Ethan up in the aisle. The flight attendants opened the doors and passengers fled like rats out of a sewer, the quarantine team a no-show. We cruised toward customs and stopped at the bottle-neck: it was the quarantine center, with flashing red lights. They had detained a teenager who was now seated at a desk, his head hanging. But we walked through the thermal scanners, turned in the forms with the reported fever, and no one stopped us.
At the hotel, Ethan’s conditioned worsened. His ear now hurt and I suspected a sinus infection. Kids at his middle school in Saratoga, California five miles from San Jose had been sick, but nothing serious. But on Day 4 of our trip, Ethan still had a fever. His pediatrician in California emailed me back that we needed to call a doctor—”could be pneumonia.”
“Don’t do it,” Ethan said. “They’ll quarantine me.” I reassured him no, saying I expected the doctor would give us antibiotics and we’d be on our way.
The Park Hyatt concierge called a doctor, and was appropriately concerned but did not blink at the news of a fever. I felt relieved to be in The Lost in Translation hotel, serene and refined, the check-in on the 41th floor a forest of bamboo, where you select an apple off the exquisite buffet and they bring it back skinned and sliced, fitted together like origami.
The formal doctor arrived at our hotel room wearing a surgical mask. He insisted on doing a flu test. “A rule,” he said.
“It’s in my brain!” Ethan said, the kebab stick disappearing up his nose. A minute later the doctor showed me a second line on a device that looked like a pregnancy test. He said that Ethan must go to the hospital for further research.
A research hospital? We’d picked this trip because it was supposed to be easy—no scorpions or terrorists or recent hurricanes.
“By myself?” Ethan asked. To his credit, he was calm— a skinny boy with jeans falling off his body, mop-headed, and a Got Oxygen? T-shirt.
“Alone,” the doctor said,” not speaking to Ethan, the criminal.
They wanted to take my 14-year old son to a research hospital in a foreign country? Alone? “Why can’t he stay here?” I asked. We’d avoided crowded places—I’d stayed in the hotel with him while my husband and daughter went to the fish market. And we’d had dinners in the room, staying out of Tokyo’s restaurants.
The doctor picked up our phone and called “the government.” He was turning us in—just like that—and on our phone. Didn’t he know that even touching the room phone cost as much as a Kobe beef steak? Then he took his $300 fee. I was stunned. I wanted nothing to do with their extreme hygiene—wet napkins and open-sesame toilets. But at least I was all but certain that Ethan didn’t have the Swine Flu. No cases had been reported at his school.
When the doctor left, I dashed to the other room and told John and our 11-year-old daughter, Carmine, to pack quickly, that we were going to the “hospital.” We were supposed to be leaving for Hakone in the morning, a gentle place with natural soaking springs and intricate garden alcoves. But now I just wanted to go home. Had they already flagged our passports?
John and I strategized. Our cell phones didn’t work and we needed one. Our guide Eva, always smiling—who was waiting for us downstairs to take us to see the Meiji Shrine—might help. She was petite and grandmotherly but very feisty. We’d heard that in China they’d been quarantining people for at least 10 days. We crammed our suitcases. I threw all the food I could find in a duffel, including packages of crackers from the plane.
“Won’t they feed us?” Carmine asked.
“They’ll bring us food,” I said. Yow, what would they serve patients at the research hospital?
“Oh, it’s like the Leper Pits,” she said.
“Take a very long book,” I told her. “Was that a cough?”
She coughed again. At home I’d have my hand on her forehead then a thermometer in her mouth, but at this point I wasn’t about to take her temperature. “Have a coke,” I said.
John was feeling feverish. “Must be jet lag,” I said. I was dizzy-tired, and I had a scratchy, maybe sore throat. But I kept repeating “jet leg” like a mantra. We decided to split up. John would stay with Carmine at the hotel. We needed someone on the outside working to get us out if need be. Because what if they tested us and each of us came down with flu—one after the other? In a research hospital we’d fall like dominos. I flashed forward to one month from now, after losing fifteen pounds, nothing but fish tea and bonsai fruit encased in gelatin.
An hour went by. Nothing happened. Did we dare leave? Was our door shuttered, swathed in red tape?
The phone rang. The hotel manager, a friendly Australian, was intent on helping us—a huge relief. The hotel was at a loss. This had never happened. The house-call doctor had never reported anyone before and the area had seen no cases of the Swine Flu. The “government” wanted us to take Ethan to a hospital to have him tested for H1N1.
The manager offered to loan us a phone. Note: If you think there’s a chance of getting quarantined in Tokyo, the Park Hyatt is the place to be caught. They are over-the-top accommodating.
Two concierges in black suits arrived at our door with masks for us. They escorted us down to the waiting car.
At a hospital in downtown Tokyo, a guard who spoke no English urged us into a glass airlock, the doors sucking shut behind us. Beyond a thick wall of glass, four people in biohazard suits stared at us as if we carried anthrax. The guard pointed at Ethan to go to a sliding door, but I shook my head. Not alone. The hotel manager had promised that the doctors would speak English. But I already sensed a lack of communication—what did they plan to do to him?
No coughing, I mouthed to Ethan, who was looking sick. We could still get out. We were taller than they were. And they were not expecting an escape. People obeyed here. Usually.
Ethan, holding his iPod and a book that had a picture of a dragon on it, stepped forward and picked up a lone white phone that beckoned. One of the doctors answered on the other side. “My mom is coming with me,” Ethan said, like a super hero. “And she’s not being tested.”
The doctors talked amongst themselves. I felt a rush of heat, pride. A glimpse of Ethan as a man. It was the way I’d felt when I’d seen that my kids could really snow ski—off they went at 40-miles-an hour and away from me. They were going to make it on their own. Eventually.
The sliding doors slammed open and a doctor emerged in a space suit. He approached us wobbily, as if on the moon. He stopped three feet from us (precisely three-feet, I noted, a distance deemed medically safe for avoiding infectious diseases) and we stared at each other—a take-me-to-your-leader moment. The doctor put us in a tiny windowless room that was twice the size of a phone booth. Things were getting a little scary and I tried calling the Hyatt on the cell but it seemed they’d scrambled the phones.
“Think of this as a biological thriller,” I said to Ethan. Was that a camera on the ceiling? “In fact, think of starring in one.”
“I’m the target,” he said. We discussed breaking out. “Shhh,” Ethan said, lifting his eyes.
Ethan suggested smashing the glass when they opened the door. He hated blood tests. “Don’t let them do it,” he said. “They probably don’t sterilize the instruments.”
Thank you. He was being difficult and I was enmeshed in guilt. But at least as far as sterilization I had no fear, given the hyper-hygiene.
The same doctor opened the door and led us into an exam room that was vibrating white. His friends in the nuclear suits watched from the other side of the glass. Our doctor spoke some English, but I could barely understand him under his apparatus. He gave me (but not Ethan) a mask. They wanted to protect me from my own child. The mask had a pig nose. Swine! Was he making a joke? I couldn’t breathe in it. I sat back, my breath percolating. The room bent in the fuzzy white light.
The doctor was questioning Ethan. He tapped the report from the doctor at the hotel. “You say fever, stuffed nose, sore throat.”
“I never said I had a sore throat,” Ethan said. His eyes were watering. I knew he was desperate to cough.
“I don’t know why I’m here now,” Ethan said. “I feel perfectly fine.” He was wonderfully assertive, and again my heart surged.
“Flu in your country is not like it is here,” the doctor said. He put a stick down Ethan’s throat and prepared a sample. He opened a small glass airlock, set in the sample and shut the door, then the doctors on the other side opened their door and received it.
“What happens if it’s Swine Flu?’ Ethan asked.
“The government will decide what to do with you,” he said. They had never seen a case of Swine Flu at this hospital.
“Can’t we just go home?” Ethan asked.
“I don’t think any plane will take you,” the doctor said.
As we exited the facility, the van that had been showing us the cultural sites of Tokyo pulled up, but this time both our driver and guide were wearing masks.
Back at the hotel the two concierges in all-black were waiting to escort us to the room. “Ninjas,” Ethan said.
The next morning when the phone rang, we gathered around it. I made John answer. I was coiled up, ready to get out of there—days of room service in close quarters and sleepless nights worried about Ethan and getting up hourly to check him and raid the mini-bar in a pinch. I couldn’t stand the thought of the doctor from the hospital telling us our sentence.
John nodded at me. He was silent, listening, then finally, “So what does that mean for us?” he asked. Ethan, Carmine and I gaped. The results were in: Swine Flu! The government was on their way over.
“Put your shoes on,” I told Ethan. “You’ll look perkier. Sick people don’t wear shoes.” Then it occurred to me that no one wore shoes indoors here.
Thirty minutes later the manager called. John, Carmine and I were wanted in the upstairs conference room: Our 11-year-old at a conference? Ethan was to stay in the room—”to take his temperature.” But I suspected they were afraid of him.
“Bolt the door and don’t let anyone in,” I told him.
The concierge bowed to us and told us not to be offended that the officials were wearing masks. “A custom,” he said.
In the pristine conference on the 45th floor, five officials stood behind the long table and bowed from the waist. Three of them were doctors—one a polished woman in a fashionable suit—and two nurses behind boxes of what looked like more tests. For us, no doubt about it. But none of them were wearing masks.
Eva, our fearless guide, was on our side of the table to translate. She told us that she was over 60-years-old and not afraid of the Swine Flu. “For the very young,” she said.
The woman doctor ran the meeting. Very poised, she spoke in Japanese for fifteen minutes, all the others nodding and smiling. When she stopped speaking, Eva delivered the news: Our son would have to stay in the hotel room for 10 days. To my left Carmine was teary-eyed. “I don’t understand what’s happening,” she said.
They pushed the boxes of Tamiflu into the center of the table. Declining to take it would require “another course of action.” Carmine, under 12, had to inhale Relenza for 10 days instead. One of the officials was having Carmine initial a disclaimer in several places and sign. When I saw Carmine’s loopy, just-finished-6th-grade cursive signature at the bottom of the document, I couldn’t believe it had come to this.
“Ask them if we’re under arrest,” I whispered to Eva, and by the hesitation across the table, I knew they’d heard me.
John explained that our trip was very expensive for us and all the money would be lost. Even hearing this in English they seemed sympathetic, particularly the doctor at the far end of the table. He suddenly said in perfect English: “Think very carefully about when the fever started.”
John and I looked at each other. This was the clue that we needed to decode for our escape: the timing of the fever. Ethan hadn’t seemed that well when he got home from the 8th-grade graduation party. His forehead had been warm.
“Warm no good,” Eva said. Everybody was warm. A corpse was cold. “He was hot? Right?”
“Ah, hot.” Everyone was nodding. Then I was getting it—we were guests in this country and had to adapt. Their bureaucracy had rules, but they felt for us, and we needed to help them comply with their red tape. Flu here was not like flu at home, clearly, and whatever the sinister implication we needed to take it seriously. The rude awakening was that American rules did not apply. Accommodating boorish tourists who chewed their chopsticks was one thing, but Flu was dead serious. But it seemed that in most places if you showed respect, you were going to be okay. There was rarely time to learn the cultural subtleties. At home we knew the street corners where we might get away with California stops, and while graffiti might pass as art in San Francisco, in certain countries it could get you caned.
We went back and forth about the date of the highest fever. That date would dictate when we could leave. “Seven days final offer!” the woman doctor said.
John was still negotiating, overlooking the “final offer.” “I would like my family to see more of Japan than a Park Hyatt hotel room,” he said.
They were apparently moved by this, because after two hours of negotiations, the rules changed. Their very final offer: The woman doctor would come by our room that afternoon to administer another Swine test. They wouldn’t make us go back to the hospital because of “your psychological.” They were looking at me. But if we leave we must wear masks, avoid crowds, “enjoying the great outdoors,” and keep four spreadsheets of all our temperatures, reporting in twice a day. And we had to wipe any doorknobs we touched with their sanitary wipes. Ethan would have to be retested in the Kyoto, Hiroshima and Osaka “hospitals” until the H1N1 test was negative. Was a vacation like this really worth it? We bowed to them in thanks.
More loose ends: They would interview the people on our flight. Ouch! They inventoried where’d we been, and were pleased that we’d barely left the room except to see the sumo wrestlers practice in their private stable for the price of a “beer ticket.” They were worried about the sumos. Top-knotted like samurai warriors, the sumos are revered in Japan, and gossiped about like Bay Watch pin-ups. Eva had shown us posters in the van. “This one has cute face,” she’d said, tapping it. “Japanese think the Bulgarian with the chest hair very sexy. Mongolians have no chest hair.”
As we left the room a nurse gave us an envelope to mail back the thermometers. Was this so they could be thrown in the incinerator, or was the health department reusing supplies as Ethan had feared? They gave us the hospital bill for the biohazard ward, which we paid, though it seemed unlikely that we would have to pay for our confinement. Maybe they’d ultimately let us go because quarantining us at the Park Hyatt for 10 days would spike the national debt. But, then again, maybe no one was that worried. They hadn’t even worn masks during the conference, the human reaction so different than the bureaucracy’s.
We checked out after getting our photo for our next holiday card, a tradition, this time taken by a Ninja-concierge: The four of us standing in front of the Park Hyatt wearing surgical masks. Underneath we were actually smiling, even joyful to be free and leaving Tokyo to see more of Japan, which we thought still might be worth seeing. At the end of the day, they had really wanted us to see it. So we would fill out their flip-chart, dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s.
We climbed in the idling van. The concierge waved until we were out of sight—“a custom”—then Eva and our driver took off their masks.