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Oldest coronavirus survivor? Oregon veteran lives to celebrate 104th birthday

Candles spelling "Happy Birthday" (Ed g2s/WikiCommons)

An Oregon veteran who turns 104 today could be one of the oldest people in the world to survive the new coronavirus.

William Lapschies, among the first Oregonians known to have the disease, has been declared free of the virus, said daughter Carolee Brown.

“He is fully recovered. He is very perky,” Brown said. “And he is very excited.”

Not only is Lapschies thriving, he’s celebrating Wednesday with Brown and other immediate family members. They planned to gather outside his window at the Edward C. Allworth Veterans’ Home in Lebanon with balloons and a double-layered cake.

“Because he loves chocolate,” Brown said.

The gathering may not rival Lapschies’ 100th birthday party that drew 250 people, but this one is every bit as special and all the sweeter for her father’s good health.

There was a moment when it wasn’t clear if the Salem-born World War II veteran would make it through the infection.

A few days after his March 10 diagnosis, a doctor at the nursing home, where Lapschies has lived for eight months, called Brown to say her father wasn’t doing well.

Lapschies’s temperature had spiked and his breathing was labored. The doctor and Brown talked about end-of-life decisions.

First thing the next morning, Brown drove the 28 miles from Lyons to Lebanon with her husband, daughter and son-in-law.

As she’s been doing twice a week since Lapschies got sick, Brown said she walked up to her father’s first-floor window. She expected to see him lying in bed. Instead, he was sitting in a wheelchair with his back toward her.

She banged on the window three or four times. Lapschies, who has hearing loss, turned around, then used his feet to scoot to the window.

Brown called his cellphone and a caregiver wearing a blue protective gown, mask, face shield and gloves switched on the speakerphone so Lapschies could hear.

“We were, like, ‘Oh, wow,’” said Brown, 77. “He just seemed like he was doing a whole lot better.”

And, she said, he’s been getting better ever since.

Amid the torrent of harsh headlines that come with every new day in the age of coronavirus, Lapschies’ recovery offers a glimmer of hope.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is particularly dangerous for elderly people and for people with underlying medical conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

Two of 15 residents at the veterans home who tested positive have died, as have dozens of people associated with an assisted living community near Seattle. Nearly 30 senior care homes in Oregon have reported at least one coronavirus case.

Somehow, Lapschies kicked the disease. While U.S. studies show that up to about 27% of people over 85 with the coronavirus don’t make it, news reports from around the globe point to a handful of hardy survivors like Lapschies.

95-year-old Yamhill County man, also a veteran, has survived. A 101-year-old man in Spain has survived, as have two 103-year-old women, one from China and one from Iran.

Brown attributes her father’s survival to his outlook on life: “He has such an upbeat attitude. He’s never down.”

A used car salesman by trade, Lapschies loves company. His isolation during the outbreak is about the biggest hardship in the three weeks since the complex went on lockdown.

Lapschies used to walk the halls and chat with people, Brown said, and now isn’t allowed to leave his room. Family members used to visit him regularly but now can meet him only at his window. They used to take him out on short trips, Brown said – one of the more recent ones was breakfast at the local Shari’s – and now they can’t.

But they hope to again at some point.

Lapschies lived through another pandemic – he was born at Salem Hospital in 1916 and was 2 when influenza infected a third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people, including 675,000 in the United States.

He grew up in Salem, married Alamadean “Deanie” Buetell in 1939 and was drafted into the Army in 1943, leaving behind Brown, who was born that same year, and an older daughter, Billie Jean, who was 2. He was stationed on a small island in the Aleutian Islands, where Brown said he helped dispatch trucks and heavy machinery.

After the war, he moved to Keizer with his family and settled down selling used cars at a place called Orville’s Car Lot.

Lapschies is the kind of dad who bought Brown a little brown horse for $60 when she was an obsessed 10-year-old and set her on her lifelong love of horses. He bought her a rundown 1939 Mercury coupe when she was 16.

The two “worked and worked on that thing” until it was drivable, Brown said, and she kept the car through high school.

The entire family’s love of the outdoors, Brown said, traces back to Lapschies, who took his two daughters and wife camping – often with a slew of neighborhood kids tagging along – at a time when spending a few days in the woods wasn’t yet all the rage. She remembers the Army-issue tents they slept in and the smelly Army sleeping bags.

Brown and her family are Lapschies main support system now. Deanie Lapschies died in 2001 from ovarian cancer and Billie Jean also died of ovarian cancer in 1998.

Brown is looking forward to the day when she can finally get into the veterans home to see him without glass between them.

The first thing she’ll do is give him a big hug, she said. Next order of business: giving him a haircut.

“His hair is getting pretty long,” she said, laughing.

The family kept the list of those attending Wednesday’s party small so everyone could easily stay at least 6 feet away from each other.

But, Brown said, her father’s 105th birthday party will be different.

“We’re really going to have a big one,” she said.


© 2020 The Oregonian