Life

Life lessons from a 102-year-old who survived Covid, the Spanish flu and two types of cancer

Mildred Geraldine "Gerri" Schappals, 102, who survived Covid-19, the 1918 flu pandemic and cancer.
Courtesy of Julia Schappals

"It wasn't bad."

That's what 102-year-old Mildred Geraldine "Gerri" Schappals had to say about getting sick with Covid-19 at her assisted living facility in Nashua, New Hampshire, according to local news site WMUR.

Perhaps Schappals, who was moderately sick for several days, is seemingly unruffled by her bout with the novel coronavirus because she has survived so much: Schappals was born in Massachusetts the year of the Spanish flu pandemic and caught it as a baby; in the '80s and '90s she survived breast then colon cancer; and in May, she contracted Covid-19 and fully recovered. 

Schappals daughter, Julia Schappals, 68, wasn't surprised one bit by her mother's recovery from Covid-19. She credits Schappals' witty but tough attitude with getting her through trying times.

"She always managed to find the humorous/absurd/laughable aspect of anything stressful," Julia Schappals tells CNBC Make It. 

Schappals says her mother was tough from the start. It began when she caught the so-called Spanish flu (an H1N1 avian flu virus) as a 10-month-old baby. Mortality was high for children under 5, and due to her high fever, doctors thought Schappals would likely die.

The 1918-19 flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide and more than 675,000 people in the U.S., but Schappals survived. 

Schappals went on to graduate from college, get married, have two children and become a teacher.

But when Shappals was in her 60s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had radiation therapy. Then in her 70s came colon cancer, for which she had surgery and chemotherapy.

So what is Schappals' secret to surviving tough times?

Get perspective

A devout Irish Catholic, Schappals says religion helped. And during the really challenging times, she has learned to ways to gain perspective.

"One thing that helps is to tell yourself you're not going to fret about it for an hour — it'll still be there at the end of the hour — and go do something enjoyable," Schappals says. When Schappals had cancer, for example, she would take long walks with her dog or go on a short shopping trip.

"I've found that little breaks can give a fresh perspective and remind you that no matter how dark things are, there are still some little lights," she says.

Find balance

While Schappals admits being an optimist helps during difficult times, it has to be "balanced with realism."

In fact, throughout her life, Schappals has been all about balance.

According to Julia, while Schappals has always eaten healthy meals, she usually had a stash of candy and cookies in a kitchen drawer to feed her sweet tooth. And Schappals, who believes a little wine was healthy for you, also almost always had a glass with dinner. 

She has also been an active person, despite being an occasional cigarette smoker until the 1960s.

"She loved swimming, she tap danced while doing dishes, she played piano every day — she was an excellent pianist," Julia says.

Have lots of friends

Growing up, Schappals always told her daughter that friends were "vital" and advised her to develop a wide and diverse group of friends.

She also says important to be a good listener, but do not "let their problems become your problems."

Listen to wise advice

Shcappals told The Washington Post, "I don't think of myself as old." Still, with experience comes wisdom. So what does someone who has survived more than 10 decades advise future generations?

First, be honest with yourself. "There's a little voice in the back of the mind that will tell you if you're not being honest, but it takes self-discipline to face it and beware of allowing emotion to yell louder than that little voice," Schappals says.

Schappals also urges young people to pay attention to school and "make yourself do the homework." That self-discipline, she says will influence your work ethic for the rest of your life. 

And lastly, before you decide on an issue of controversy, "make certain you understand the other side's argument – it's the only way to avoid decisions based on emotion or slick-talking politicians," she says. 

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