Sailing the Mediterranean, exploring the fjords of Norway or visiting fabled sites of ancient civilizations — these are dream vacations that can shatter when kidney disease strikes.
“The day the doctor told me I would need dialysis, I thought I wouldn’t be able to travel any more,” said Josette Georgin, 72, from the French city of Metz. “To have dialysis, it’s like being in a prison without bars.”
Then she discovered dialysis cruising.
Dialysis cruises, organized by the Gerard Pons Voyages travel agency in Bordeaux in partnership with the luxury line Costa Cruises, offers 15 trips a year with an onboard fully-equipped dialysis clinic, providing rare mobility and precious freedom for the ever-growing population of dialysis patients.
The UK Renal Registry said more than 20,000 patients receive dialysis every year in Britain.
The figures are slightly higher in France and Italy. Across the world, as people live longer, the number of dialysis patients increases by 8 percent a year.
The average age for starting dialysis is 65, just when many retirees begin traveling. But there are also many younger people on dialysis who will never know the freedom of travel.
One family took their 16-year-old on dialysis for a dream family vacation. A young couple, the husband on dialysis, celebrated their honeymoon and another couple feted their five-year wedding anniversary.
The nature of the disease makes travel potentially dangerous. People undergo dialysis when their kidneys fail and cannot purify their blood. Functioning kidneys purify blood every day, all day long.
A patient typically undergoes dialysis three times per week, each session lasting several hours. Without dialysis, they will die.
Should the patient travel, the logistics of arranging for dialysis in a different hospital, let alone a foreign country, are daunting enough to keep them at home. To travel, they need complete faith in the people overseeing their logistics and healthcare.
Gerard Pons, the industry leader in dialysis cruises, and Anne-Caroline Leurent, his dialysis cruise expert, inspire such confidence.
Pons came up with the idea of onboard dialysis more than 20 years ago while talking to a friend who was a nephrologist. On the one hand, he wanted to offer luxury travel, and on the other he needed an irreproachable dialysis service.
Costa Cruises offers some of the most popular itineraries in the industry — and three ships that have onboard hospitals spacious enough to host a temporary dialysis clinic.
The clinics are managed by Fresenius, known for manufacturing dialysis units, operating dialysis centers and coordinating dialysis sessions for travelers. Fresenius supplies top-of-the-line equipment and a medical team, including a nephrologist and three nurses. There are four dialysis units on each cruise, allowing for 12 patients.
Despite the economic crisis, Leurent reported that places are fully booked on cruises scheduled for the first half of this year. She has had one cancellation from a Briton whose bank crashed, but someone on the wait list quickly snapped up his spot.
The lure of secure medical care in the morning followed by a jaunt to Mount Vesuvius in the afternoon keeps demand high.
“When I’m onboard, it’s very luxurious,” said Georgin, who has already taken all of the offered cruises and plans more. “I forget that I have dialysis. I am on vacation and the dialysis is only a small part of the trip, four hours, three times per week.”