Reporter’s notebook: How my dad, 106, survived the ‘other’ pandemic

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My father, Ed Palkot, has a unique perspective on the current coronavirus pandemic.

He’s sheltering in place now in his suburban New York home. And he’s 106. He survived the last major global ‎pandemic.

MORE THAN 100 YEARS BEFORE CORONAVIRUS, THE SPANISH FLU PANDEMIC RAVAGED THE GLOBE

That one infected 500 million people around the world and killed some 50 million, 675,000 in the U.S.

‎American cities were especially hard-hit, including Pittsburgh, Penn. The city of just over half-a-million at the time saw 4,500 deaths from the virus and 24,000 reported cases. And Dad was one of them.

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Edward Palkot with his mother Mamie and father John.

Edward Palkot with his mother Mamie and father John.
(Greg Palkot)

Edward was 5 years old. According to him, he probably contracted the “dreaded disease” from his “playmates.” Unlike the current COVID-19, the Spanish flu hit younger people harder than the elderly.

“Those who drank whiskey escaped the flu,” Dad recalls his mother Mamie suggesting, “those who did not, succumbed.”   

In fact, Dad’s mother and father were fine. Ed, the only child at the time, got the attention.

Pittsburgh’s mayor reluctantly followed guidance from Pennsylvania authorities to close public spaces, so the virus came with a vengeance. The city scrambled to set up makeshift hospitals. People crowded in, struggled to breathe, their lungs filling with liquid. There were no respirators then.

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Edward Palkot with caregiver, Tina

Edward Palkot with caregiver, Tina
(Greg Palkot)

Dad’s “dear” mother luckily decided to keep him at home, providing him with “careful nursing.” His room was simple but cozy, warmed by a gas space heater. Edward was attended to by the Palkot family GP, Dr. Frederick. House calls then cost a lordly sum of two dollars. It was worth it. “His skillful treatment,” Dad remembers, “saved my life.”

Others in Pittsburgh weren’t so lucky.  

At the Spanish flu’s peak, people were dying in the city at the rate of 100 a day.

“The procession of horse-drawn hearses seemed to continue endlessly,” he said. Most of the wakes were at home, not funeral homes.  “You learned of a death by a wreathe at the door — purple for older people, white for the young.” 

When the death rate increased, Dad recalled, just plain flowers were used.

After a week or so, Edward recovered. In fact, after several weeks the worst of the Spanish flu had passed through the city. 

Greg Palkot and his father, Thanksgiving 2019

Greg Palkot and his father, Thanksgiving 2019
(Greg Palkot)

The best therapy to get the remnants of the flu out of Dad’s lungs? According to trusted Dr. Frederick, playing outside. Mother Mamie was “perplexed,” little Ed was “elated.”

Fast-forward a century or so, and Dad is now living through another pandemic, COVID-19. Literally hundreds of cases all around his home. He’s getting by with the help of family, including my two sisters nearby. And perhaps most importantly right now, hard-working caregiver Tina, who lives with him and pretty much plays the role of Dad’s late mother.

What are ‎his feelings about the coronavirus? He thinks it’s serious, for sure. He follows it online and watches coverage on TV, but he’s meeting it head-on. When I called earlier this week, his phone didn’t answer. I was concerned. When I called back later, he answered.  

“I was out taking a walk with Tina,” he confided. “It was a lovely day.”

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And does Ed Palkot think the U.S. will get through this pandemic like it ‎managed to get through the Spanish flu?  He thought about it for a moment and replied, “I hope so … I hope so.” As we all do.

Thanks for sharing, Dad

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