Shipmates: Foot cast doesn’t stop cruise for Smithsonian tour leader

A 12-day cruise on the Grande Caribe from New Orleans to Nashville was a dream trip. And Toni Thomas was so ready to start on the wonderful journey.

But a few weeks before her departure date, Toni felt a twinge of pain in the side of her right foot. Thinking it would go away, Toni ignored the discomfort.

Toni Thomas wear an air boot on her Grande Caribe cruise

“Then it got worse and starting hurt more and more. I knew I had to go the doctor,” she said.

An MRI revealed that Toni has a torn tendon in her foot. “The tendon had literally split but it didn’t detach,” she said. “I have no idea how I did it and the doctor didn’t either.”

As an alternative to surgery, the doctor recommended encasing Toni’s foot in an air boot for six weeks. The hard plastic shell would protect her foot and give the tendon a chance to heal itself. She could remove the air boot for driving, bathing and sleeping.

But what about her Blount Small Ship Adventures cruise?

“I immediately called my home office and Blount and told them what was going on,” Toni recalled. “They said we could make it work even with the air boot.”

The plaine white plastic of the air boot was decorated by ship stewardess Melanie Brandzen

A program specialist for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, Toni is part of the Smithsonian Journeys 20-member travel group on the cruise.

Founded in 1970, Smithsonian Journeys offers about 150 tours each year to all seven continents. The tours are intended to expand members’ intellectual horizons and satisfy their curiosity about the world around them.

As a tour leader, Toni would be on her feet much of the time organizing shore excursions and other events. Would the air boot affect that?

Obviously, it doesn’t. Toni is one of the first up in the morning and the last to bed at night. She climbs on and off buses, takes head counts of tour members, makes sure that excursions return to the ship on time, scrambles up ship stairs, walks many miles and even serves cold drinks during the ship’s cocktail hour.

Melanie Brandzen used her free time to paint the boot

Along the way, she seems to gain a new nickname every day – Leadfoot, Ms. Clumsy, Peg Leg, Chester, Bigfoot, Forest Gimp, Thump Thump and many more.

Her air boot also got special treatment. Instead of the plain white plastic insert on the boot, Grande Caribe stewardess Melanie Brandzen painted colorful flowers blooming on graceful vines. The daughter of an art professor from Berkley, Massachusetts, Melanie created the work of art in her spare time on the ship.

Toni Thomas doesn't let an air boot slow down her tour of Shiloh Battlefield

When the cruise is over, Toni has a doctor’s appointment to see if the six weeks of air boot have helped her tendon heal. If not, the doctor might recommend more boot time or an operation. “I pray I don’t need surgery,” she said.

As for that painted souvenir, Toni says it will have a place of honor in her home as a special remembrance of her cruise and the talented crew member who turned something drab and hospital-like into a beautiful accessory.

For more information: Contact Blount Small Ship Adventures at (800) 556-7450,

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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