By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
A man in full medical gear, mask and very limited English knocked heavily on Spencer Fehrenbacher’s cabin door on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, quarantined off Japan’s coast as the number of passengers with coronavirus grows each day.
He pointed to Fehrenbacher’s name on a clipboard.
A long day followed, when the Grand Canyon University graduate was brought to his lowest moments – and leaned on a faith that he nurtured at GCU.
He made a video for his parents, only to be opened if he was taken from the ship as one of 45,000 coronavirus cases and 1,100 deaths (as of Feb. 12) that have alarmed the world.
Fehrenbacher, a GCU communications graduate in December 2013 and former faith-based marketing specialist at GCU, boarded the 15-day cruise Jan. 20 with three friends for a break from graduate studies in Tianjin, China.
He hadn’t heard much about the virus then, and only after the ship stopped in Hong Kong three days in did he learn more from another former GCU student who lives in China. He bought a mask but mainly felt sorry for his friends there.
“Looking back, 15 days ago, most of those people have returned to their own countries, and here I am in the epicenter of the biggest outbreak outside China,” Fehrenbacher said in a video interview.
Fear spread on board in the week following the Hong Kong stop, especially after the first passenger with coronavirus was diagnosed Feb. 1, he said. Two days later, an intercom announcement told the 3,700 passengers that the ship would speed to the Yokohama port and face quarantine.
A medical team directed by the Japan Ministry of Health would board and go cabin by cabin. Passengers were required to report to the medical center if they had experienced fevers, coughs or chills.
Fehrenbacher’s cabin mates looked at him with fear.
They knew he had a fever a week earlier.
“I really didn’t want to go down. Anybody that might have symptoms of the virus are all going to the exact same place at the exact same time, and that’s where I didn’t want to be,” he said.
He called his dad, Scott Fehrenbacher, a senior vice president of external relations at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada, similar to the position he held at GCU until 2015.
“Is that the place you want to go?” Scott said to his son.
“Dad, I’m gonna go down and do it,” Spencer told him.
He decided it was an ethical, if not a legal, obligation.
“It was a tough conversation,” the elder Fehrenbacher said, and every day since he’s had a vision of his son walking down to that clinic.
“Here I am in my sweats and my surgical mask and I’m walking into gloom,” Spencer said. “I’m shivering. I’m in an elevator next to people in evening gowns and tuxedos going to dinner and shows. I couldn’t help of thinking of a scene from ‘Titanic’ where you have Jack Rose running around panicking and 95% of everyone else is staring at him like he is the crazy one.”
The clinic was overrun with 20 people, mostly elderly, and he heard the deep rattle of a cough. “It was a heartbreaking feeling, and I had raw fear.”
He passed the initial tests. But then came the late night knock on his door to report to the doctor. He needed additional throat swab tests.
That’s when the waiting got worse as he talked to family and friends and prayed. By the next day, 10 more aboard had tested positive.
“As a father I’m always worried. That’s my job. But this was like the ‘Hunger Games,’” Scott Fehrenbacher said.
Spencer hadn’t heard bad news and began to feel better -- until he read a media report that they were only a third of the way through getting the results. The next day 20 more tested positive, then 41 more.
“Sitting there, every time I have to clear my throat, every time I have a tickle in my throat or feel like I have to cough the slightest, it is the ultimate fear. ‘Do I have this? Am I about to be taken away?’ I wait for the knock on the door,” he said.
His cabin mate suggested making a video message to his family, just in case. Spencer went to the balcony outside his room and said into the camera, “If you are seeing this, I’ve tested positive … I love you mom and dad.” He sent it to his brother to view, only if he had the virus.
All the positivity that he and his travel partners had played out while quarantined inside adjoining rooms for days without being able to leave “came crashing down,” he said.
“I broke down in tears for 10 minutes. It was the culmination of fear and vulnerability, how powerless I was to do anything but just cope.”
He was overjoyed when he got the news that he was not positive -- at least for now. Reports continue to circulate second-guessing the virus’ incubation period, he said.
Spencer takes his temperature with ship-issued thermometers five times a day, watches movies and reads while awaiting news of the expected Feb. 19 date when passengers can disembark, which also might change.
He has endured with his faith. He spends time in prayer, listening to worship music or remembering that even if he ends up infected, “just having the belief in something that is in control over all of this has been really meaningful.”
His father is grateful today for his son’s time at GCU as he waits, because the Christian university “prepares you to integrate faith through all aspects of life. And these tough days are an aspect of life.”
On Tuesday morning, 39 more passengers were diagnosed with coronavirus, according to Princess Cruises, bringing the total to 175. So, Spencer said he has done a lot of thinking. His plan to stay in China for five years to better learn the language after his December graduation with a master’s in international business might now change.
“It is making me reflect on what I view as God’s plan for my long-term future and what I want my legacy to be,” he said. “Is it worth it to sacrifice the adventure and be back closer to family? It’s a question I can’t answer because it’s too emotional of a time to make that decision.”
For now, he just wants to get off this boat and go home to Canada, away from this terrible virus.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.