Early in a long, prosperous life, Anna Del Priore contracted the deadly Spanish flu in 1918, at about 6 years old. She survived, grew up, got married and raised two children.
When another pandemic arrived this year, she was 107 and particularly susceptible. At Brighton Gardens assisted-living facility in Middletown, N.J., Del Priore tested positive for the novel coronavirus in May.
But while she had a fever and a cough and needed supplemental oxygen at one point, she never went on a ventilator, never went to the hospital in six weeks of having the virus.
“God made me better,” a smiling Del Priore said on a video call last week.
Sixty miles and a couple of months apart this spring, her younger sister, 104-year-old Helen Guzzone, had fought the same worrisome battle. She contracted the coronavirus in March at her nursing home in Queens, N.Y., and she showed the same resilience. She was out of the woods within two weeks, and now the sisters will celebrate memorable birthdays on the same day, Sept. 5.
“Unbelievable,” said Del Priore’s granddaughter, Darlene Jasmine, who remembers calling Brighton Gardens almost every day during that six-week period.
When his mother was struggling with covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, Nick Guzzone had trouble sleeping. “I hope she’s going to beat this,” he recalled thinking, but also: “I don’t know how.” When he received the news, New York City was a global epicenter for the pandemic. He braced for the worst, wondering whether he’d need to start calling a local funeral home.
The sisters’ strength defies the grim odds of this pandemic, but it has followed them through the decades. They grew up in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood with deaf and mute parents. After she was married, Del Priore was known to walk around town to three or four stores each day to buy food for a home-cooked meal. Guzzone did leg raises into her 90s, even in the nursing home. She eschewed alcohol, smoking and even dairy — “food was her enemy,” her son said.
Even at 107, Del Priore says her favorite pastime is tango dancing, which she continued doing until the pandemic shuttered residents into their rooms in March. Until she was 100, she walked a mile to McDonald’s every morning for coffee with friends. When her daughter died, she moved in with Jasmine for a short time and then to Brighton Gardens.
“To watch someone that’s lived such a long, prosperous life beat this virus has been wonderful to watch,” her caretaker Laura Halle, said. “She’s always so positive. She’s always smiling.”
A trying spring means the sisters’ birthday will carry extra significance this year, but the risks of the pandemic make potential celebrations dangerous. Last week, Jasmine visited her grandmother outdoors for the first time since March. Guzzone has not seen his mother except in video calls. They still speak with angst about months of being isolated from their relatives, worried that they would die without family by their side, but both look forward to reuniting soon.