By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
The harrowing ordeal of Grand Canyon University graduate Spencer Fehrenbacher continued this week.
Just when he thought he had put a three-week quarantine aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship behind him and stepped foot in the United States on Sunday, he learned troubling news.
The person who sat behind him on the plane ride home tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Realizing I spent the last 12 hours right in front of her was concerning, to say the least,” Fehrenbacher said.
In his new 14-day quarantine digs – a hotel room on Travis Air Force Base in California – he asked for sanitary wipes to diligently scrub “every nook and cranny” of his carry-on bag, Fehrenbacher said Wednesday via telephone.
Minutes before, he learned that the Centers for Disease Control will test other passengers Thursday morning because 14 on board the plane were found to have the virus. He should find out results in three days.
He was relieved to be tested. His biggest worry was taking the virus back to his family in Canada, so he wants to make sure he is free of it. Some passengers he has known had no noticeable symptoms before testing positive, he said.
Fehrenbacher boarded the cruise Jan. 20 and had been on the vessel nearly four weeks after the ship was quarantined off the coast of Japan, as more than 600 passengers eventually tested positive for the coronavirus.
At first, he was delighted to board one of two Boeing 747 freighters chartered by the U.S. government to transport more than 300 Americans from the Diamond Princess. He entered the plane with no windows, metal floors and portable toilets, and was approached by “a bunch of men in Hazmat suits,” his wrist banded with the number “60.”
He sat there listening to passengers' deep, hacking coughs.
“I’d be lying if I would say there wasn’t some anxiety between the plane and bus ride,” he said.
“I’d spent 12 or 13 days in isolation to now be in close proximity with people hacking up a lung -- it’s hard not to be worried. The thought of taking off my mask seemed ludicrous to me. But the woman next to me was snacking the entire flight.”
When the plane landed, he continued, medical personnel in hazard suits approached a woman sitting behind him and told her she would be going on to Omaha, which he later learned meant that she had tested positive.
After the cold isolation of the past three weeks, everything changed when he landed.
“Every single person, from CDC to customs to medical and military officials, welcomed us: 'Hello sir, welcome back.’
“When you heard that from every single person you meet, it was an emotional experience and caught me off guard.”
He is expected to be quarantined in California for 14 days.
“We are all so happy he is off that ship, which has turned into an incubator,” said his father Scott Fehrenbacher, a former GCU employee who today lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
His son has tried to stay positive through the ordeal, using skills from communication studies at GCU to tout the openness of the cruise line on TV interviews from stations all over the world. He even wrote an opinion piece for USA Today. But he later found out that the cruise staff wasn’t entirely open about the number of people inflected, he said, and his face showed surprise when a TV reporter told him of new cases.
“Lessons in communications,” he said.
His graduate studies in China are delayed because he can’t return, and he hopes to stay with his parents in Canada for a while and figure out what is next.
“As a communications major from GCU, this is communications experience you can’t buy. For sure, I’d like it be something other than a worldwide pandemic,” he said. “But God is using this to let me understand what my skills are and really what my purpose is after this has passed.
“It’s helped me remember what my gift is. To put it simply, it’s the gift of gab.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.