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Editor's note: This is a developing story and updates will be made periodically as they become available.
Mark and Jerri Jorgensen couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a vacation onboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Embarking from Tokyo in mid-January, stops would include Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. As Mark had served his mission in Taiwan, it would be a prime opportunity to show Jerri the city.
The trip didn’t disappoint. The Jorgensens went kayaking, bicycling, tried the local food, and even happened to be in Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year.
It was, in short, the “chance of a lifetime.”
But at the end of the cruise, during their last night at dinner, the voyage took a little turn. The captain of the ship reported that a guest from Hong Kong had embarked on the ship in Yokohama on January 20th. He disembarked again in Hong Kong on January 25th and six days later visited a local hospital, not feeling well. Since the guest did not report his illness to the ship’s medical center, the hospital sent word back to the boat that the man had tested positive for the coronavirus.
As of March 2, the coronavirus has caused over 3,000 deaths worldwide, with some of the highest rates of infection currently in China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy, the Washington Post reported. Cases have also recently been confirmed in Indonesia, Australia, India, Portugal, Britain, and the United States.
In response to the coronavirus, the Church has taken a number of measures to prevent the disease from spreading, including discouraging international travel for general conference, precautionary measures for missionaries, several temple closures, and in some areas, a canceling of Sunday worship services.
The Diamond Princess cruise ship was instructed by the Japanese to anchor at Yokohama Bay, and temperature tests on passengers began. If a guest was running a little warm, he or she received a throat swab test for the virus.
At first, just 10 people tested positive. But the numbers started climbing: 42, 64 . . . within 24 hours, the passengers were quarantined to their cabins. But the Jorgensens considered themselves fortunate—they had a mini-suite with a balcony connected to the cabin of friends they had been traveling with, so they were able to go out and enjoy some fresh air.
“We had it better than a lot of people,” says Jerri. “If [we] had been in inside rooms and quarantined and with little kids—oh my gosh, that would have just been a nightmare.”
Every three days or so, the passengers were allowed to walk around the deck for about an hour with masks and gloves, Jerri continues. But there wasn’t a lot of fear at the time.
“It was like, ‘Okay, it’s a . . . bug, and we knew that there were some people in the United States that had contracted it, but nobody had died in the United States. I mean, they don’t talk about the 10,000 people that have died in the United States from [the] . . . flu in the last four months. They don’t talk about that, it’s all about this corona thing. And I get it, it’s sensational and it is spreading fast.”
And the virus certainly was spreading fast on the Diamond Princess. Since Mark had previously had two kidney transplants, he was considered to be at higher risk than most and received a test early on. Since his wife Jerri was nearby, she received one as well. To their surprise, it was Jerri who tested positive. When they found out the news, she had just enough time to grab a small bag and a change of clothes before she was whisked away in an ambulance to a hospital in Fukushima, Japan.
“It’s weird because I haven’t had any symptoms and I haven’t had a cold or the flu in probably three decades,” she says. “I’m just never sick.”
Mark didn’t think much of the separation at first, assuming it would only be a day or two until he would next see his wife. He felt no flood of emotions or panic at the time.
But while Jerri was still in the hospital, 300 to 350 American passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship who had tested negative were flown to California and Texas, and Mark was among them. Although the temperature of the cargo plane was chilly, the noise significantly louder than typical planes, and the bathroom facilities less than ideal, Mark jokes that he at least had more legroom.
Taken to the Travis Air Force Base in California, Mark was told the incubation period for the virus is approximately 14 days. So, he and his fellow passengers would have to wait out quarantine in a hotel room two stories high with approximately 50 units in each building. Surrounded by a chain-link fence, they were allowed to spend time outside if they wore a mask, though people rarely left their rooms to get some fresh air. In the hour or so that Mark would spend outside each day, he never bumped into anyone.
“It’s quite remarkable,” he says. “People really aren’t taking advantage of that like I thought they might. I don’t see anybody out there walking around. And when I’ve been out walking, I’ve never run into anybody ever.”
Jerri and Mark have had a lot of down time during quarantine. When Jerri didn’t have Wi-Fi for the first few days in the hospital in Fukushima, she says her number one request was a yoga mat. Apart from a temperature that was initially higher than normal, she had no cough, sore throat, or other flu-like symptoms that accompany coronavirus, and physically taking care of her body helped her overall emotional state, she says.
Getting Wi-Fi was also a game-changer. She was able to make phone calls, FaceTime with her husband, watch a little Netflix, read The God Who Weeps, and share her experiences on social media. While keeping her friends and family updated through Facebook, Jerri also turned being quarantined into an opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“People will ask me, ‘How do you stay so positive? Your husband’s in a different country. You’re in isolation. You tested positive for this virus. How do you stay positive?’ And so, then it just opened up the door for me to talk about my faith,” she says. “So, I thought, ‘Well, okay. This is why I’m here. I’m doing a little bit of missionary work.”
From the care packages of gourmet oranges, cookies, and chocolates that she received from local Church leaders in Fukushima, to the nurse who brought her McDonald’s when she was homesick for American food, Jerri says she has been well taken care of. She even shared on Facebook how others’ ministering to her has brightened her day.
“I was just going to share my experience, but then it kind of turned into ‘I’ve got to tell you about my church. And so, I talk a little bit about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and about the Relief Society—it’s the largest women’s organization in the world, and this is what they do,’ because people ask me,” she says.
Having Latter-day Saints from Fukushima reach out has been a reminder to her that the Church is truly an international organization.
“Wherever I am in the world, there [are] going to be members of my faith that will reach out to me,” she says. “They have just taken care of me like you can’t even believe—well, you can believe it, because that’s how it is. That’s how our Church rolls throughout the world. That’s just what they do. They’re amazing.”
Although Jerri received a chest X-Ray, a CT scan, full blood work, and a nose swab when she arrived in the hospital in Fukushima, there was very little interaction with the staff in the days that followed, which was “actually kind of nice,” she says. Communicating with hospital personnel via Google Translate, she was told she had to wait for two days of negative tests before traveling back home.
As of Thursday, February 27, a nose swab test came back negative, but a test on her throat was positive. While Jerri was happy to be making progress, she needed two complete negative results to be discharged from the hospital. On February 29, she was tested negative and had begun taking steps to return back home.
Jerri flew back to the US on March 4th on a flight that was chartered for Americans who have been staying in Japanese hospitals. She has now returned home to St. George, Utah, and plans to lay low for awhile by staying away from public places. While she has a letter from the CDC stating that there are no public health restrictions associated with her well-being, she wishes to help alleviate any fear others might have about catching the virus, St. George News reported.
During his quarantine in the Travis Air Force Base, Mark was also tested positive with the coronavirus on Tuesday, February 25th, and was moved from the Travis Air Force Base to a hospital in Folsom, California. He has since been transferred to the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray in a unit designed for high-level isolation with its own entrances, water, and air-filtration systems separate from the main hospital, KSL-TV reported.
Through the many ups and downs in this journey, the Jorgensens say that focusing on the here and now helps them maintain a positive attitude.
“We’re in this present moment, and we don’t live in the past with regret like, ‘Oh my gosh, I shouldn’t have eaten at that table because maybe that’s where I got coronavirus,’ or living in the future . . . people were just going, ‘You’ve got to be freaking out,’ and I’m going, ‘No, because that’s the future and I’m not there yet,’” says Jerri. “And things can change, but we live in the present.”
But being in isolation is not without its challenges, Mark says. While staying in the Travis Air Force Base, he was surrounded by people going through the same experience as him—but not being able to interact with others and instead having to only connect with people digitally just isn’t the same as personal interaction.
“I just try and live . . . and show optimism and perspective and connect that way,” he says. “As far as face to face connection . . . I really haven’t had any. That’s what’s so weird about this, is I’m connecting to all these people, but yet I’m still isolated. I don’t talk to anybody face to face. I’ve got my fellow passengers here, I’m surrounded by them, but I don’t see them.”
Faith and Friends
Despite the feelings of loneliness and being far apart from each other, this experience has brought Jerri and Mark closer together and helped them appreciate one another even more.
“Sometimes it’s easy to take each other for granted when we’re just with each other and even on vacation,” says Mark. “It’s easy . . . to watch TV or play on our phones or whatever when we’re lying next to each other, but where we are separated, we get on the phone. We actually have to say things to each other and connect that way. And it’s been really cool, in a way.”
During his quarantine, Mark is attempting to read through the entire Book of Mormon since it's the Church's focus for the Come, Follow Me curriculum in 2020. And as he and Jerri have no control over their current situation, it’s taught them a lot about patience, he says.
“I’ve learned that I’m not in charge. I just have to let go and trust and surrender and know that there’s a bigger picture, and my stressing and worrying . . . isn’t going to change what is. So, what’s going to happen is what’s going to happen—and I just get to trust that that’s perfect in the scheme of things.”
The only choice they do have, Jerri continues, is to stay positive, so she and Mark make that choice every single day.
"I have this choice to feel love, because God’s love—I’m his daughter, so I’m made of love. How often do I tap into that, or do I tap into all the negative stuff that Satan wants me to tap into? The despair and the complete loneliness and the anger and, ‘Oh, it shouldn’t be this way’—those are all his tools. They’re not Christ’s.”
Looking for the silver lining is a daily practice that Christ taught during His ministry on the earth, Jerri says.
“I [think] that Christ knew what was going to happen Him, and did he dwell on that? No. He dwelled on love. He dwelled on service and teaching and just loving His people and when He knew He was going to be killed. He didn’t stress or worry or [be] bitter or angry about that. He just moved away. . . . That’s all through the parables, and it’s all through the Sermon on the Mount. It’s everywhere in the scriptures, but we miss [that] part.”
Being grateful for the little things and expressing that gratitude to God has made the waiting easier for Jerri as she hopes to return home and eventually be reunited with her husband.
“I talk to God all throughout the day," she says. “I’m experiencing this. I’m away from my husband, but he’s still a phone call away. . . . And God is here. We’re never, ever alone.”
In fact, both Jerri and Mark have received words of encouragement from people all around the world who have told the Jorgensens they are praying for them and sending well wishes to them.
“People are following me from Africa and all over Europe . . . and I said, ‘If you don’t have a faith, I so appreciate your good vibes and your thoughts and all that. I appreciate that so much. But if you’re looking for something, let these cute little missionaries if you ever find one, talk to [you],” says Jerri.
Jerri and Mark appreciate the prayers of those who have reached out to them, but they are quick to mention how there are many who need those prayers more than they do.
“I compare the things other people go through,” Mark says of his quarantine in Travis Air Force Base. “To spend a couple weeks in a hotel room with three big meals brought to me every day . . . if this is the biggest burden I have to bear in life, I’ll be very happy.”
Still, Mark says the response from friends, family, and even strangers has been remarkable.
“It’s just amazing the strangers that come out and say, ‘We’re pulling for you,’ from Australia or South Africa or all these other places," he says. "Just the generosity of the human spirit is very humbling. So, that’s really been touching.”