A Canadian mother and her sick son are desperate to get back home after an illness forced Cole Antinello, 7, off an airplane tarmac in Cuba, leaving them stuck in hospital and searching for answers.

Nicole Antinello of Caledonia, Ont. flew to Cuba for a holiday on July 14 with her seven-year-old son, alongside her 76-year-old mother and her 16-year-old daughter.

Towards the end of the trip, the family started experiencing flu-like symptoms, she said. It hit Cole the hardest — and officials flagged the Caledonia Centennial School student as too sick to fly when sitting in his seat on the tarmac in Cuba, about to take off to come home.

"He had a fever and chills, and thought he was going to throw up," Antinello told CBC News from Cuba. The family was pulled off the plane, and Cole was rushed to a pediatric hospital in Holguin.

'It's so scary, and my head is spinning, and I just want to get back home to Canada.' - Nicole Antinello

There, doctors diagnosed Cole with appendicitis and wheeled him into surgery to have his appendix out — but his mother says she isn't sure that was the right diagnosis.

The doctors pushed on his abdomen to gauge his pain level, and though her son said "Ow," he "just wasn't in a whole bunch of pain," Antinello said. The doctors also performed a blood test, which she says revealed a an irregularity. 

"The doctors started speaking in Spanish, and then they turned around and said he needed his appendix out."

Cole Antinello

Caledonia Centennial School student Cole Antinello, 7, had surgery in Cuba on Friday after falling ill on vacation. Now, his family is trying to get him home. (Nicole Antinello)

Mother alleges hospital conditions were 'like a warzone'

According to the Mayo Clinic, a physical exam to assess pain and a blood test can both be used to help diagnose appendicitis. Urine tests can also be ordered, alongside imaging tests like an ultrasound or CT scan — but those options weren't available in the hospital, Antinello told CBC News.

She called the conditions in the hospital "disgusting," with water running down the walls, constantly running toilets, and construction happening right next to her son's room. "There was dust everywhere," she said. "It looked like a warzone."

After the surgery, doctors told the family that Cole's appendix hadn't burst. He has since been discharged from hospital, and is now staying at a nearby hotel. But, she says, he has since fallen ill again.

Cole Antinello

Antinello described the conditions at the hospital where her son was admitted as "disgusting." (Nicole Antinello)

Antinello says the family purchased travel insurance for medical emergencies through Manulife.

"Now, we're waiting for the insurance to guarantee payment for the hospital bills before we're allowed to leave the country," she said. Antinello's daughter and mother are set to fly out tonight, while she and her son are hoping to fly out on Friday night.

A Manulife spokesperson said she couldn't comment on the situation.

"The health and well-being of our customers is our priority and we take great care to ensure their needs are met," said Shabeen Hanifa, media relations manager. "Manulife takes the responsibility of protecting the privacy of our customers very seriously and are not able to discuss specific details of any case."

'I haven't slept in days'

Global Affairs Canada told CBC News that they are aware of the situation, and that their thoughts are with Cole and his family.

"Canadian consular officials in Guardalavaca and Havana are in contact with local authorities and are providing consular assistance to the family as required," said spokesperson Brianne Maxwell in an email. "To protect the privacy of the individual concerned, further details on this case cannot be released."

Cole Antinello

Nicole Antinello (second from right) is seen here on vacation with her son Cole, as well as her daughter and mother. (Nicole Antinello)

A GoFundMe page has been launched by some of Antinello's friends to help out with costs. She says that she's not trying to cover medical bills (as insurance should take care of those), but she is trying to pay for flights (which aren't covered under her plan, she says), as well as hotels, food, and her rapidly expanding phone bill.

Antinello, who is currently off work on disability leave, says she has had to up the limit on one of her credit cards to keep going.

As of Wednesday morning, the fundraising page had raised $2,030 of an $8,000 goal — though Antinello says she wasn't aware that's how much her friends were asking for. "We don't need that much," she said.

Cole Antinello

Nicole Antinello says construction was taking place next to her son's room, which left a film of dust everywhere. (Nicole Antinello)

More than anything, she and her family just want to get home, she says.

"I haven't slept in days. It's so scary, and my head is spinning, and I just want to get back home to Canada."

adam.carter@cbc.ca