Calgary

Dream Peru trip results in husband dying, wife contracting COVID-19

Ruby Choi thought she was going on a trip of a lifetime when she left Calgary with her husband earlier this month. Now she's a widow fighting off COVID-19, worried about managing her diabetes with limited medicine.

Calgarians headed to Machu Picchu ended up in limbo, running out of medication

Ruby and Chun Choi are pictured here on a Suez Canal cruise in December 2019. The two tried to travel in their retirement. Chun Choi died in Peru on Sunday. (Supplied by Christine Hagerty)

UPDATE: Ruby Choi and her friends returned to Calgary on April 17.


Ruby Choi thought she was going on a trip of a lifetime when she left Calgary with her husband and friends earlier this month.

Now she's a widow fighting off COVID-19 in quarantine in Peru, worried about managing her diabetes.

"I don't know what to do, it's just awful. I'm getting crazy," Choi said from her quarantine room in Lima. "My mind is just so confused."

Now her Chinese-Canadian friends, from whom she's been separated for nearly a week, have been taken off a flight bound for Canada, forced to self-isolate and wait for coronavirus test results.

They've described their interactions with embassy staff as hostile, and worry they've been treated with extra caution because they're Chinese.

'Just wrong timing'

Hundreds of Canadians are finally leaving the South American country this week on government-chartered flights back to Canada.

Peru locked its borders March 16 to stem the spread of the pandemic, and announced it would not support the repatriation of foreigners.

When Choi and her husband, Chun Pang Choi, left for Peru on March 9, there were no warnings about travelling to the country. They were looking forward to joining two friends for a 10-day tour of the country, including Machu Picchu, as part of their retirement travels.

"We just like to explore," Choi said. "It's just wrong timing, I guess."

Chun Pang Choi died from heart failure Sunday. Ruby Choi remains in quarantine with COVID-19. (Ruby Choi/Facebook)

When the border closed, the tour group couldn't easily leave. Choi said they were directed by the embassy to wait for flight arrangements.

They stayed 10 days in the small town of Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, isolating themselves in their hotel rooms.

Husband fell ill, died

Then Chun Choi became weak, struggling to breathe.

"My husband got so sick, so he had no strength, couldn't stand at all," Ruby Choi said.

He was flown by helicopter to the hospital in Lima, where doctors said he was suffering from a lack of oxygen. Ruby said doctors told her he tested negative for COVID-19.

He died Sunday at age 67. His wife said doctors told her he died from heart failure.

She, however, tested positive for the novel coronavirus. She's now quarantined under doctor supervision with a dry, frequent cough and fatigue.

Unable to speak Spanish, and now all alone, she misses her husband.

"He is a really quiet person and is quite generous. He doesn't care about little things," she said.

Worries about treatment

The niece of one of her friends who are also on the tour has been trying to help Choi navigate the Peruvian health-care system from Calgary. Christina Hagerty, a well-known Calgary real estate agent, has spent days on the phone with officials, a travel agent and Peruvian authorities.

Christina Hagerty's aunt is in Peru. Hagerty is a real estate agent in Calgary. (ChristinaHagerty.ca)

She said she worries because the 66-year-old's quarantine room is a villa repurposed for people in COVID-19 isolation. She said it doesn't have a pillow, toilet paper or diabetic-friendly food.

"So she lost her husband, she's now detained and she doesn't speak the language," Hagerty said. 'I'm very, very afraid that she's just left there."

The key worry for Choi is being able to access a refill of her diabetic medication. She said she was down to her last dose.

"If I don't get my medicine, I'll die," Choi said.

The group has been in contact with the Canadian embassy in Lima, and gave them the number for Choi's doctor, but they say they haven't heard about their medication.

Hagerty said the emergency line for travellers offered little support. Instead, they're relying on a travel agent in Lima to help navigate the country's processes.

CBC News has asked Global Affairs Canada about the situation. A spokesperson declined to comment, stating privacy concerns.

The agency said its emergency call centre responded to nearly 1,800 calls and 5,500 emails for help on Wednesday alone.

Friends in quarantine

Hagerty's aunt, Amy Kwai Ling Leung, and her friend, Miu Wan Ling, also ran into trouble Thursday.

They were scheduled to leave on a plane back to Calgary but were pulled aside by Canadian embassy staff, Hagerty said.

Amy Kwai Ling Leung is under forced quarantine because her friend tested positive for COVID-19, but not until after they separated. (Supplied by Christine Hagerty)

Hagerty had cancelled Choi's flight due to the COVID-19 test and need to go into quarantine. Embassy staff then told Leung and Ling also to stay in the country in isolation, she said.

The friends are not symptomatic and last saw Choi nearly a week ago, and before her positive test, Hagerty said. So she thinks the two, who speak Cantonese primarily, shouldn't have been held back based on their friend's diagnosis since they parted.

"I think it's because of the broken English and because she's Asian. I really do," Hagerty said.

Hagerty said she has learned that others in the tour, who weren't Chinese-Canadian, were allowed to leave Peru.

WATCH | Canadians stranded in Peru credit fellow travellers, not the government, for getting them home:

After two weeks of worry and frustration, Canadian tourists trapped in Peru are on their way home — and many credit fellow travellers, not the Canadian government, for getting them back. 2:02

After multiple calls and emails from Hagerty, embassy staff wrote to the friends late Thursday to say they were trying to get two COVID-19 tests, to eliminate that concern.

"We are engaging authorities at every level and trying to find a solution quickly," the embassy said in an email provided to CBC News. "I am confident that we will find a solution fast. So please do not lose hope."

As of Friday morning, the friends had been tested and were told to stay in their hotel room until April 10 or face imprisonment, Hagerty said.

"They're afraid," Hagerty said. "They're afraid for their safety, they don't trust the embassy."

Hagerty and the others now wait to see how the trip that started so well will finally come to an end.

About the Author

Rachel Ward

Journalist

Rachel Ward is a journalist from Nova Scotia and working for CBC News in Calgary. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at rachel.ward@cbc.ca.

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