‘He just got better and better’: 104-year-old Army veteran beats coronavirus in time to celebrate his birthday
By KATIE SHEPHERD | The Washington Post | Published: April 3, 2020
Stars and Stripes is making stories on the coronavirus pandemic available free of charge. See other free reports here. Sign up for our daily coronavirus newsletter here. Please support our journalism with a subscription.
When William "Bill" Lapschies celebrated his 104th birthday with his family over chocolate cake and his favorite pizza on Wednesday, he wasn't just marking another annual milestone in his long, full life. He was also celebrating a full recovery from the novel coronavirus as one of the oldest-known survivors of COVID-19 in the U.S.
In early March, Lapschies and a small group of elderly tenants living together in a state-run veterans' facility in Lebanon, Ore., started feeling ill. They were among the first Oregon residents to test positive for coronavirus, and Lapschies' family worried the illness would prove deadly.
"We all thought, 'He's 103, what are the odds he's going to come out of this?'" granddaughter Jamie Yutzie told The Washington Post.
Coronavirus is particularly deadly among older people, who suffer fatal complications at a higher rate than young people who catch the virus, but some elderly patients have beat the virus. A 95-year-old man, also in Oregon, recovered last month after mild symptoms. In Seattle, a 90-year-old woman recovered after catching the virus at the Life Care Center senior facility, which was the hardest-hit nursing home in the early days of the U.S. outbreak.
Doctors first told the family Lapschies had pneumonia, Yutzie said. Then, on March 11, he tested positive for coronavirus.
Lapschies' illness played out like a roller-coaster ride. Some days, he appeared to improve, smiling behind a medical mask as doctors prodded and poked, checking for fever and respiratory distress. Other days, his condition declined.
"That virus goes up and down, and you really don't know what the next day is going to bring," Yutzie said. "After those couple of long days where we weren't quite sure, he just got better and better."
His family visited him several times a week, watching through a window in his room and calling him so that they could hear his voice. On Friday, doctors said he had cleared the virus and could celebrate, his granddaughter told The Post. By Wednesday, his 104th birthday, Lapschies was feeling healthy again, able to remove his mask and step outside for the first time in weeks.
"He is fully recovered. He is very perky," daughter Carolee Brown told The Oregonian. "And he is very excited."
Lapschies was born on April 1, 1916, and worked at a paper mill in Salem, Ore., after high school. He married his wife, Almadean "Deanie" Buetell, in 1939, and they had two daughters, six grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, and worked as a car salesman after he left the service. His wife died of ovarian cancer in 2001, after the couple had been married for 62 years. Lapschies lived on and maintained a family farm until 2014, when he sold it to his great-granddaughter and moved into a retirement community. He moved into the veterans' home in 2019, Yutzie said.
Yutzie, along with her brother and parents, visited the veterans' home on Wednesday to celebrate the grandfather's recovery and 104th birthday. Lapschies was allowed to step outside and wave at his family from a socially distant six feet away.
Later in the day, his great-grandchildren brought chocolate cake and talked to Lapschies through the window in his room. Their great-grandfather grinned back through the glass panes.
"He's got this great big huge contagious smile that just lights up a room," Yutzie said.
Lapschies' recovery from COVID-19 has been an inspiration to many people, Yutzie told The Post, and his infectious cheerfulness helped his family cope with watching a loved one suffer through the disease.
Even Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, D, wished Lapschies a happy birthday on Wednesday.
"Sending happy birthday wishes to Bill on his 104th birthday!" Brown wrote on Facebook. "He's one of Oregon's honored veterans and has just recovered from covid-19."
The Edward C. Allworth Veterans' Home has reported 15 confirmed cases of covid-19 among residents, the Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs said in a statement. Among those residents who have tested positive, at least eight have recovered, two are in serious condition and two have died, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
Yutzie credits the health-care workers inside the veterans' home with her grandfather's recovery and for keeping the outbreak inside a community that houses dozens of medically-vulnerable veterans relatively small.
"They're the heroes now," she said. "They're the ones on the front lines and in the trenches."
Lapschies, who has been bound to a wheelchair since coming down with COVID-19, is already working on strengthening his muscles so he can use his walker again, Yutzie said. Her grandfather always told her "once you sit down you don't get up," she said.
"It's part of why he's lived so long, he's not going to give up," Yutzie told The Post. "He had a lot of help this time. We're very lucky, we certainly didn't want the virus to take him at almost 104."