Israeli coronavirus survivor to ‘Post': I 'cried tears of joy' upon return

As Rachel Biton returns from Japan to Israel, Health Ministry warns Israelis not to reconsider all international travel

Rachel Biton returns to Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rachel Biton returns to Israel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rachel Biton “cried tears of joy” on Wednesday when she returned to Israel and met her family after being in quarantine, first aboard the Diamond Princess in Yokohama port and then in a Japanese military hospital.
Biton, 73, is one of four Israelis who contracted the novel coronavirus while traveling on the cruise ship. Her brother, Shimon Dahan, and two unrelated individuals were also diagnosed with the COVID-19 disease. In total, 621 passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess were infected with the coronavirus.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Biton spoke emotionally about the support she received in Japan.
“The hospital was wonderful,” she said. “The doctors and nurses were wonderful.”
She thanked the Health and Foreign ministries, and specifically Health Ministry director-general Prof. Itamar Grotto and Prof. Ran Nir-Paz from Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, who helped take care of her in Japan.
She explained that she felt well the entire time. But for her blood sample, she never would have known that she was sick, she said.
 “I had no sign. Nothing,” she said, noting that each day after her diagnosis she expected to wake up and be deathly ill. “Each day in the hospital, they would come and take my temperature and check my lungs and draw blood – but nothing.”
By most reports, older adults are at greater risk for developing a lethal version of the coronavirus because of several risk factors, such as potential preexisting co-morbidities – like lung disease of Type 2 diabetes – and possibly compromised immune systems. Biton credited her regimen of swimming, walking and staying active during her retirement for the reaction her body had to the virus.
Biton recalled for the Post what it was like to be in quarantine. She said that when passengers aboard the Diamond Princess learned about the infection, they were all put in quarantine. She was on the ship with nine family members, and they were all sent to their rooms.
The staff delivered food three times per day by knocking on each door and leaving a tray. When the staff walked away, passengers were instructed to open their doors and retrieve the food.
The same process was used to distribute towels and other amenities.
Once a day, passengers were allowed out of their rooms in shifts to breathe fresh air. Biton’s room was on floor five, and she could walk up to floor seven, where she had a view of the harbor.
After she was diagnosed and hospitalized, medical staff spoke to her mainly using electronic devices. The language barrier, Biton said, was sometimes a challenge, but “the Japanese have such patience.”
She described a small hand-held device that they gave her, to which she would speak in English and it would translate her words into Japanese.
“They really tried to make us feel at home,” she said of the military hospital staff.
She shared her hospital room, equipped with a shower and a mini fridge, with brother Dahan.
After one week in the hospital, doctors did a final check, pronounced her healthy, and released her. With the help of the local Chabad, Biton secured the first plane back to Israel. On arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, she underwent an additional test to ensure she still did not have the virus. Then, she was reunited with her family.
“I met my family members at the airport, and we cried tears of joy,” Biton said, noting that the family celebrated with a thanksgiving party. She said she thanked God for her recovery.
Among the family members who met Biton at Ben-Gurion Airport were her daughter and son.
“It is a great relief for Mama to come home,” said Rafi Biton in an interview published by the Hebrew daily Israel Hayom. “We have had a very difficult two weeks since we found out she was infected with the virus. We felt helpless and uncertain.”
Daughter Ortal Malka called her mother’s homecoming “the best gift for Mother’s Day,” which was February 25.
Biton’s husband, Yitzhak, and the other seven members of her family who were aboard the Diamond Princess could not reunite with her at the airport. Since the 11 Israeli passengers returned on a charter plane on February 21, they have been in quarantine at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer.
Biton cautioned all Israelis: “If you have a fever, get checked.”
“But even if you have nothing, you still need to worry,” she continued. “Even without symptoms, you could be a carrier.”