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103-year-old Italian coronavirus survivor beat the odds with ‘courage, faith’

103-year-old Ada Zanusso smiles with a nurse on April 1 in Lessona, northern Italy, after recovering from COVID-19.
(Residenza Maria Grazia Lessona)

To recover from the coronavirus, which she managed to do at age 103, Ada Zanusso recommends courage and faith, the same qualities that have served her well in more than a century on Earth.

Italy, along with neighboring France, has Europe’s largest population of what has been dubbed the “super old” — people who are at least 100. As the nation with the world’s highest number of COVID-19 deaths, Italy is looking to its super-old survivors for inspiration.

This week, Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera devoted an entire page to the stories of super-old survivors, called “healing at 100 years old.” The inspirational portraits are a counterpoint to news of large numbers of deaths from COVID-19 among elderly people living in Italian nursing homes and other assisted-living facilities.

“I’m well, I’m well,” Zanusso said this week during a video call from the Maria Grazia Residence for the elderly in Lessona, a town in the northern region of Piedmont. “I watch TV, read the newspapers.”

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Zanusso wore a protective mask, as did her family doctor beside her, Carla Furno Marchese, who also donned eyewear and a gown that covered her head.

Asked about her illness, Zanusso is modest: “I had some fever.”

Her doctor said Zanusso was in bed for a week.

“We hydrated her because she wasn’t eating, and then we thought she wasn’t going to make it because she was always drowsy and not reacting,” said Furno Marchese, who has been Zanusso’s doctor for 35 years.

“One day she opened her eyes again and resumed doing what she used to before,” Furno Marchese said, recalling when Zanusso was able to sit up and then later managed to get out of bed.

What helped her get through the illness? “Courage and strength, faith,” Zanusso said. It worked for her, so she advises others who fall ill to also “give yourself courage, have faith.”

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COVID-19 can cause mild or moderate symptoms, and most of those who are infected recover. But the elderly and those with existing health problems can be at high risk for more serious illness.

The virus has killed nearly 18,000 people in Italy and more than 88,000 worldwide. The World Health Organization says 95% of those who have died in Europe were over 60 years old.

Under Italy’s five-week-long lockdown, which is aimed at containing the spread of infections that have overwhelmed hospitals, visitors aren’t allowed at homes for the elderly.

Her doctor asked Zanusso what she would like to do when “they open the doors.”

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“I’d like to take a lovely walk,” she replied. And your three great-grandchildren? “Watch them play together.”

Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli will give a live solo performance Sunday inside the Duomo cathedral in Milan, which will be livestreamed on YouTube.

Deaths, hospitalizations and new infections are leveling off in Italy, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is expected to announce in the coming days how long the lockdown will remain in place, with expectations that some restrictions could be eased.

For now, Zanusso is isolated from other residents as she awaits a follow-up swab test to confirm she is negative for the virus.

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She grew up in Treviso, in the northeastern Veneto region, where she worked for many years in the textile industry. Zanusso, who turns 104 on Aug. 16, had four children — three of whom are living — and has four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

“She’s old but healthy, with no chronic illness,’’ her doctor said.


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