Observer: The Ronnie Lee and Jackie Bancroft Spencer Morgan Story
In 2003, May Day took on a new meaning for me. At about 2:30 a.m., I received a frantic call at my home in Midland, Texas, from my client, Ron Morgan. It was what we used to call ‘ship-to-shore telephonic.’ I supposed this call was via satellite but it still had that hollow sound.
Ron was in a state of panic. He and his wife, Jackie Bancroft Spencer Morgan, were on one of their extended cruises on the plush Radisson Seven Seas ship. The cruise was for five months, making numerous ports-of-call around the world, and cost about a hundred-thousand dollars a month. This was the cost of the cruise only and did not include the several-hundred-thousand-dollar purchases at the ports-of-call. Ron and Jackie lived in separate staterooms, a fact that would later haunt Ron.
I had kept up with the cruise itinerary pretty well because Ron and Jackie shipped their purchases from a port-of-call to my law office in Midland, Texas, for storage. There were many purchases for antiques and art, just as there had been on their previous Radisson Seven Seas’ adventure about a year-and-a-half earlier.
“I have waited a lifetime for this. I’m having so much fun,” Jackie had said to me before that last cruise.
At first, I thought this wee-hour call from Ron was to check whether a certain purchase had arrived at my office. As an interior decorator, he was experienced at keeping up with inventory.
This night, however, and the nights to follow, would be quite different. Jackie, typically robust and always wanting to be on the go at 77 years of age, was ill, seriously ill. Now, on a ship in the middle of an ocean somewhere in the world, this turn in her health was a concern.
“Glen, something is really wrong with Jackie. I don’t know what to do!” Ron screamed into the ship’s phone.
“Okay, settle down. Let me get up-to-speed here. What is the nature of her illness?”
“I don’t know. One of her legs is horribly swollen.”
“Did she fall?” I asked.
“No, no, it’s something worse. Something internal. Here, talk to the nurse.”
Basically, the nurse told me that she didn’t know what was wrong with Jackie. She had been ill several days, and had become progressively worse. The best the nurse could do was to keep her as comfortable as possible.
I asked to speak to the doctor, and the nurse told me she was the sole source of medical care; the ship did not have a doctor onboard. The thought struck me that, for a hundred grand a month, you would think they would have a doctor, but I didn’t take the time to raise hell about it. The sense of urgency was clearly there, and some decisions had to be made.
I asked the nurse to let me speak to Ron again.
“Ron, where are you? Where is the ship located at this time?”
“I don’t know. We’re somewhere in the Atlantic, I think.”
“Is the Captain there? Let me speak to the Captain,” I said.
“He isn’t here right now. He isn’t available. Stay by the phone. I’ll have him call you back.”
I agreed. I was glad for the break. It gave me the chance to think the situation through. Apparently, Jackie was in an almost critical state. When I asked the nurse if Jackie was cogent, did she respond to questions, I was told that she was almost comatose. She was sedated because of pain, and barely responsive. When I asked, “Would she be able to speak with me,” the nurse said Jackie just wasn’t capable.
We had a real problem on our hands. My first thought was, we’ll just have a medical evac fly in, snatch her off the ship, and bring her back. How naïve. She was thousands of miles out in the Atlantic, in the middle of nowhere. Neither helicopter nor any other evac conveyance that could land on a ship is capable of flying that far.
After about thirty minutes, the phone rang. It was the captain of the Radisson Seven Seas. He was professional, acknowledged that Jackie was in need of medical assistance greater than what the ship could provide, but offered no solution. I asked for the current location of the ship, which turned out to be in the Atlantic, far off the West Coast of Africa. I sat in my easy chair at home trying to determine the next logical move.
The phone rang. It was Ron. He was quite frantic. Something had to be done, and quick. I told him I would be proposing a plan to the captain within thirty minutes. Try to stay calm.
Truth of the matter was, I had no plan. I kept wondering why Ron had let Jackie reach this advanced state without calling me. For the last five years of my professional relationship with him, Ron would hardly spit on the street without calling me first, or so it seemed. Had he waited because he wanted Jackie to die? I knew Ron’s devious side, and I knew that he often counted the days until she was gone. There were many conversations between Jackie, Ron and me as to how he should be compensated after her death. She was amazingly forthright on the subject to both of us.
Was this concern just an act on Ron’s part? He was pretty good at putting on an act. Surely, Ron hadn’t become overly anxious about his post-Jackie life, and when she became ill on the ship, delayed, delayed. On the other hand, I knew how Ron was, that at times he had difficulty making a decision. Maybe that’s how this thing had gotten out of hand. Then, too, I knew how Jackie was. “Demanding” would be an understatement.
Ron and Jackie had leased a Lear jet based out of Midland for their U.S. travels. The plane was owned, and often piloted, by my good friend, Dallas Smith. Not only was he an expert at navigation; he had a company that manufactured oil field equipment in China and imported it to the West Texas oil fields. I had been representing local oil firms and families in foreign countries for years. He was the man I needed in this crisis. Between the two of us, we should be able to figure out the logistics for this thing. Beyond that, I needed to mobilize my office team, particularly Teresa, my legal assistant, and Cuatro, my son, who was the office manager. They were expert at putting plans into action.
Within thirty minutes, at 4:00 a.m., Dallas, Teresa, and Cuatro were sitting in my conference room. We were speaking with the Captain of the ship, reviewing Jackie’s condition as best the Captain could ascertain it, and identifying the exact longitude of the Radisson Seven Seas. Within reachable distance of this location was an island, Ascension. It was the closest location that could provide medical services. The decision was made to change course and head for the island.
Ascension is very small and owned by the British. Essentially, it is a military base and was an important fueling stop in Britain’s Falkland Islands’ war with Argentina.
The decision having been made to get medical help for Jackie at Ascension, we felt some relief and could return to the day’s work. I wasn’t too pleased that it would take the Radisson Seven Seas ten hours to reach Ascension, but that was the nearest medical help, and the best we could do. The Captain was instructed to notify me immediately upon the ship’s arrival.
About the time we thought we had put the emergency to rest, the captain called again. There were several problems. When he had first called the medical facility at Ascension, the British commandant he spoke with was cooperative and said they would accept Jackie on an emergency basis. The Radisson Seven Seas had no sooner changed course for Ascension than the commandant of the island called and said that they could not receive the Radisson Seven Seas without approval from the Royal Air Force (RAF) Commander for British-owned Atlantic islands, who was stationed in England. Beyond that, the Ascension base medical facility did have a doctor. However, after the ship’s nurse described Jackie’s symptoms and condition, they had no idea whether they had facilities sufficient to treat her.
Back to the drawing board! I called the ship’s captain and instructed him to maintain course for Ascension. I would get the necessary approval for docking of the Radisson Seven Seas at Ascension, and acceptance at the medical facility for Jackie. I was speaking through my ass. I had no idea how I was going to get this done.
What I did know was that Dallas was pretty good at breaking through bureaucratic barriers. Aside from manufacturing and importing from China, he knew ‘pilot-speak’ and had been the sheriff of Midland County.
Somehow, he got hold of the British RAF commander in England and acquired the necessary permission for the Radisson Seven Seas to be received at Ascension and for Jackie to be admitted for emergency care. We did have to fax a few documents, such as a waiver of liability, to the commander, but it looked like we were set.
Cuatro had been rearranging schedules, canceling appointments, and checking on how we might airlift Jackie and Ron from Ascension once Jackie was stabilized. Teresa had been multitasking, helping Dallas locate the commander of Ascension, and then break through secretarial barriers to speak with him.
By this time, it was mid-day. We sighed in relief and tried to get on with our other obligations of the day. We thought that was the end of it, and hoped for the best for Jackie.
But about 8:00 p.m., as I had just sat down with a glass of wine and was seriously thinking about bed, the phone rang. It was the Radisson Seven Seas’ first-mate asking me to hold for the captain. When he came on, the captain stated that they were at Ascension, but in rough seas. It was impossible to dock. What did I suggest now?
I was dumbstruck. The thought entered my mind that surely this captain had more leadership skills than I was feeling at the moment. Surely, he must be highly trained and making a huge salary floating a boat around the world for only the rich. Why was I the one making all the decisions? I hardly knew where the Atlantic was. I lived in the desert.
Again, I suppressed my reaction and told the captain I would call him back in thirty minutes. Again, I summoned my team. Again, we were at the law office within thirty minutes.
Dallas had brought flight maps for the area around Ascension. A straight line to the East would take a ship to port cities in either Angola or the Congo. This didn’t seem like a good alternative. A straight line to the West would bring the ship to port cities in Brazil. This seemed like the best bet, but what then? These ports didn’t have modern medical facilities. What would be the next step?
The captain, in another call, suggested calling the Brazilian port of Fortaleza. The Radisson Seven Seas could make for Fortaleza and dock there, but, once docked, what was to be done with Jackie? The captain estimated their time of arrival (ETA) at forty-eight hours hence, and we had better have a plan of how to get medical help for Jackie at docking.
Sitting in my conference room, we studied maps and tried to determine routes to major cities where, hopefully, there would be adequate medical care. I knew from talking to the ship’s nurse that we needed good diagnostics. I was told that it could be a bowel blockage requiring surgery, or it could be the onset of kidney failure, or perhaps there was a cancer implication. Basically, the nurse didn’t know what was wrong with Jackie. She was doing her best to keep Jackie as comfortable as possible.
The logistics of this situation were terrible, and they just kept getting worse. We studied the maps. We could have a private jet waiting at the port of Fortaleza and then fly Jackie either south to Rio, or north to Caracas. In either case, we had to make a decision quickly. You don’t just go entering sovereign countries and say I want medical help. There are hoops to jump through and red tape to master. Beyond that, either of these destinations required a long flight from the port. Could Jackie even survive the flight?
I called the ship and discussed the options with Ron. He, of course, didn’t know the right answer. None of us did. He said he would talk it over with Jackie, and call me back. That told me she must be hanging in there, that she vacillated between being semi-comatose and cogent. I suspected this was in part due to sedation. Although the nurse did not know the source of Jackie’s sickness, she seemed dedicated to managing her pain.
When Ron called back, he said Jackie was insistent that she wasn’t going to have a bunch of South Americans treating her, and most certainly not operating on her. I was glad to hear it, not because it solved any problems but because it sounded like the old Jackie. No one ever told Jackie what to do; she told you. She told Ron to tell me to get her to Albuquerque to the hospital. That was it—no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
While the Radisson Seven Seas made for the Brazilian Port of Fortaleza, Dallas, Teresa and Cuatro tried to locate a jet on which we could place a doctor, nurse, and medical equipment, a jet that could make it to Fortaleza as quickly as possible, refuel, and return to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Within itself, this was no easy task. You don’t just go retro-fitting leased jets for medical evacuation in less than twenty-four hours.
We located a private evac-service in Miami that had just what we needed: Gulf-Stream II, and a contractual relation with a doctor and a nurse to be placed onboard. They could head for Fortaleza within four hours. It was quite an expensive operation, but, fortunately, in this case, money was not a concern.
However, the Miami company advised that the plane would have to land at Houston upon its return; there was no way to clear customs at Albuquerque. We knew intuitively that time was running out for Jackie. Another delay, trying to clear customs, an intermediate stop on the way to the hospital, just wasn’t going to work.
In a crisis, it helps to be rich and to have contributed substantial sums to the party in power. Jackie, like all Bancrofts, had always been a staunch Republican. This was one time it paid off.
Simultaneously, Teresa contacted the Immigration Service while I contacted the State Department. We were fortunate to get both agencies talking to each other, and, within four hours, we had emergency clearance for the Gulf-Stream II to fly directly into Albuquerque.
It had been a long two days and nights, and my team and I were gassed. As we each struggled back to our daily routine, we learned that Jackie had made it to the hospital in Albuquerque.
We checked on her daily through hospital information. With what she had been through, and the delay in receiving adequate medical attention, I didn’t want to bother her.
She lived for about seven days, then passed.
Now, for the rest of the story.