Mildred Geraldine “Gerri” Schappals, who has survived a once-in-a-century pandemic — twice — knows a thing or two about how to live a long, healthy life.
Born Jan. 18, 1918, the 102-year-old Nashua, New Hampshire, resident has survived the deadly Spanish flu, a bout with breast cancer and then colon cancer, and recently recovered from the coronavirus, according to The Washington Post.
The world Schappals was born into hardly resembles the modern world, save for the parallel pandemics.
Her life began in Worcester, Massachusetts, during World War I, and she grew up hearing stories of the Civil War from its living veterans during school assemblies.
Schappals reminisces about her childhood in the early part of the 20th century, when the milkman still delivered from his horse-drawn wagon and a trip to the cinema was only a dime.
She can recall important events such as Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 and the Great Depression in the 1930s, although her family fared better than most since her father continued working.
But during the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic that would kill nearly 50 million people worldwide, Schappals; her teenage brother, Joseph; and her mother all caught the lethal virus in November of that year.
Only 11 months old at the time, Schappals was so sick and unable to move that her parents simply left her cloth diapers unpinned when changing her.
Despite the fact that the family was told both mother and baby most certainly would die (Joseph had a milder case), all three made a full recovery. According to family lore, the doctor who treated them wept because they were his only patients to survive the virus.
Schappals grew up healthy after that, not catching the other childhood ailments such as measles and scarlet fever that other children in her generation endured.
She met her husband, Everett “Gus” Schappals, in Washington state while he was serving in the Navy during World War II, and the couple settled in New Hampshire, where they remained and raised two daughters.
During her lifetime, Gerri Schappals also finished college and graduate school to become a teacher and eventually an elementary school principal.
She was widowed in 1983 but has her daughters, Julia Schappals and Jade Walsh, along with three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, to accompany her as the second century of her life unfolds.
Advice from a woman who survived covid-19, the 1918 flu — and cancer https://t.co/yO7fWTK88p
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) August 3, 2020
Schappals partly credits her early illness for her lifelong, stellar immune system.
“I really think that having the 1918 flu strengthened everything about me,” she told The Post. “I never had colds or illnesses until I got cancer, and even then I pulled through.”
“It’s either that or Mother Nature thinks I died in 1918, so she ignores me,” Schappals said.
Some of her other secrets to longevity include not worrying excessively and enjoying red wine, with the plucky Irish Catholic great-grandmother sometimes saying, “Jesus did not change water into wine so that I could look at it.”
In fact, Gerri’s 68-year-old daughter, Julia, said she had never known her mother to have any respiratory illness such as a cold or the flu until she contracted COVID-19.
In May, Schappals was tested at the hospital for the virus after a few days of feeling ill and feverish.
“I figured this is probably a little much for somebody who is 102, and that this is probably going to take her,” Julia said.
But by the time she got the positive result, Schappals, who is the oldest resident at the Huntington at Nashua assisted-living and retirement community, was already feeling better.
She made a full recovery and quips that she has repeatedly skirted the Grim Reaper by slipping through the cracks in his book.
Julia said her mother is “an example of a good, fighting treasure.”
Besides her ability to cheat death, Schappals has also come away from her century-plus of experience with valuable insights.
“Most people are innately good and sympathetic,” she told The Post. “They want to do the right thing, but it’s easy to be sidetracked by selfishness and emotion.”
As for her habit of always landing on her feet, “I always feel lucky,” Schappals told CNN’s Gary Tuchman.
“I never had any real problems in my life, everything seemed to fall into place,” she said of a life that was no doubt touched by hardships, including fighting cancer twice and losing her husband.
“She had an incredible attitude,” Lisa Valcourt, executive director at the Huntington at Nashua, said. “She took every day and said, ‘I guess I’m sick, they told me I’m sick, but I’m not sick.'”
“When you look at everything that she’s been through and her positive attitude that she’s maintained, it makes all of us want to be stronger,” Valcourt told The Post.
Schappals is a remarkable woman, not only because she has survived so much but because, by all accounts, she has always maintained a positive outlook despite her struggles.
Her simple advice — worrying less, seeing the best in others and enjoying the good things in life, such as a glass of red wine — can go a long way in our harried and anxious modern world.
Schappals is also a glimmer of hope to the nation’s vulnerable elderly, many of whom are languishing alone in assisted living and nursing home facilities, spending their waning golden years isolated from family and friends to avoid contracting coronavirus.
Her story proves that not everyone who contracts coronavirus will die from it, even some of the oldest patients.
Schappals’ example reminds us to stay positive and strong in the face of adversity, even when the odds are seemingly stacked against us.
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