Monday, 21 September 2020

102-year-old New Hampshire woman survives both COVID-19 and the 1918 Spanish flu

 Most people would consider themselves fortunate to survive after contracting the deadly virus from one pandemic. Mildred Geraldine “Gerri” Schappals has survived two of them, more than a century apart.

The 102-year-old Schappals was infected with the Spanish flu in 1918 in Worcester and she tested positive last May for COVID-19 at her assisted living facility in Nashua, New Hampshire, but she overcame both illnesses and is feeling fine.

She has an interesting way of looking at her longevity. She told her daughter Julia Schappals on Friday that she believes she was destined to do something great and she’s still trying to find out what it is and do it.

“She’s often said that she thinks Mother Nature believes that she died in 1918 and has forgotten about her,” said Julia from her home in Bedford, N.H.

A photo of Mildred Geraldine “Gerri” Schappals in December 2019.

Gerri Schappals is hard of hearing so telephone conversations are difficult and visitors to her facility are limited so her daughter asked her a few questions and she relayed the answers for this article.

Mayor Joseph M. Petty was so touched by her story, he planned to drive to Nashua on Saturday morning to deliver a key to the city of Worcester to her at a garden outside her facility.

“This is the city where she lived, grew up,” Petty said. “So it’s a nice thing to do.”

Petty has awarded several keys to the city, but as far as he knows this is the first time a Worcester mayor left the state to deliver one.

“She has a good wit and she seems tough,” Petty said. “That’s why she’s a survivor and lived a long life.”

“I think it’s very thrilling,” Julia said. “She’s certainly a child of Worcester, Massachusetts. She’s a product of their public schools in the 1920s and 1930s. She has very fond memories of growing up there.”

She said her mother told her Friday that she was very honored and delighted, but she couldn’t understand why Petty would drive an hour to see her.

She has most of her marbles at age 102, she said, but “every now and then a few fall out of the bag,” so she isn’t sure if her mother completely comprehends the significance of the honor of receiving the key to the city, but she does appreciate it.

Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess had also planned to visit her on Saturday, but had to cancel because he recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Gerri Schappals was born in Worcester as Mildred Lyons on Jan. 18, 1918. The family lived at 12 Bancroft St., off Chandler Street near Park Avenue, in a home that has since been torn down.

In November of 1918, when World War I came to a close, she came down with the flu. So did her mother, Nora, and her teenage brother, Joseph, although his case was far less severe. Gerri was so sick she couldn’t move so her caretakers didn’t bother to pin her diaper after they changed it.

Young Mildred Geraldine Schappals in 1921.

“Her mother and she were basically given up for dead,” Julia said, “and the doctor said, ‘They’re not going to live.’”

The flu killed 675,000 Americans, but all three of the stricken Lyons family members somehow survived.

“When the doctor came back,” Julia said, “he actually started crying and said, ‘We licked it, we licked it.’ Those were his exact words.”

Last May, Gerri ran a low fever for a few days, but the fever spiked and she was taken to the hospital where she was tested for COVID-19. By the time the COVID-19 test came back positive, she felt better.

“The story goes,” Julia said, “that she came back into the (assisted living) facility and said, ‘I feel great. When’s lunch?’ And she’s felt fine ever since then.”

Gerri Schappals fought off breast cancer in the late 1980s and colon cancer in the mid-1990s, but her daughter doesn’t remember her ever having a cold or the flu. Julia Schappals said her mother believes surviving her bout with the Spanish flu fortified her immune system.

“Maybe she’s right,” Julia said. “Maybe whoever this master of death is has forgot about her.”

Gerri credits her love of wine in part for her long life. She’s often said, “Jesus did not change water into wine at Cana so we could look at it.”

When her mother was young, Julia said, she took piano and dance lessons in Worcester. She had to stop playing piano only a few years ago because of arthritis in her hands.

Gerri remembers as a child seeing quarantine signs posted on the front doors of Worcester homes with people suffering from scarlet fever inside. She enjoyed going to school in Worcester with children of immigrants who learned to speak English within a few months. She learned some Armenian herself.

“She learned several words, probably swear words,” her daughter said with a laugh.

Gerri Schappals attended Winslow Street Grammar School and graduated from Commerce High School in Worcester and Fitchburg State University, then known as State Teachers College at Fitchburg.

She and her sister Helen taught at Abbott Street School near Foley Stadium in Worcester for a while before she and a few of her college friends moved to Washington, D.C., in the early 1940s to teach. There she met her future husband, Everett “Gus” Schappals. He was a naval officer so they lived in places around the globe, including Guam where she started the island’s first nursery school for children of U.S. servicemen.

In the early 1960s, Gus Schappals left the Navy and the family moved to Nashua. Gerri became an elementary school principal and supervisor of elementary instruction and curriculum for Nashua public schools.

Gus Schappals believed in health food and vitamins, but he died at age 67 in 1983. On the other hand, his wife had no interest in either, but has lived past 100.

Julia Schappals said her mother “would probably run for her life from a carrot so she could get to a cookie. I think she lived on crackers and cheese and hamburgers.”

Because of stenosis, Gerri walks with a cane, but doesn’t use a wheelchair.

Gerri Schappals told her daughter on Friday that she hopes Worcester stays as unique as it was when she was a child. The mayor driving an hour to give her the key to the city, that’s certainly unique.

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