KING 5 chief investigative reporter Susannah Frame shares the remarkable recovery of her 106-year-old grandmother after a case of COVID-19.
On Monday, April 20, our family got a bad phone call: my grandmother, 106-year-old Fritzi Bryant of Yakima, had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Knowing how horrible the disease is for the elderly, I definitely thought I’d never see her again,” said Fritzi’s daughter, my mother Nancy Frame, who also lives in Yakima. “I noticed a cough (over the phone) three days before she tested positive. I lived in fear for a long time.”
The cough persisted for three to four weeks, and then staff at her long-term care facility in Yakima said she was symptom-free. At the age of 106, she had recovered, making her one of the oldest people in the country to beat the deadly virus.
“Well, I worked hard at (beating it),” said Fritzi, via a FaceTime call in May. “I can’t believe I got (the virus) but I was very fortunate to cut it short. Actually, it went by so fast, I didn’t have time to be scared.”
I can’t say the same for our large family. We were all terrified. Although Fritzi doesn’t have any underlying health conditions (amazing in and of itself!) but we all knew the elderly were the most at-risk.
“I thought she was going to die, for sure,” said my brother Bill Frame, of Fox Island. “When she got COVID, I thought ‘You just don’t come back from that at her age.’”
On top of that, because of state orders, none of us could visit her, not even through a window.
On May 2, my two sons and I drove to Yakima with a big hand-made sign and roses for Fritzi. We thought at least we could wave through her window and see her one last time.
“It did feel like a death sentence,” said my son, Lee Swedin, of Seattle. “Of course, I was concerned she might not make it and this could be the last time I’d see her. So I wanted to go show her how much she meant to me.”
Our plan didn’t work. We could only access her window by going through a hall in the facility, and that wasn’t allowed. A nurse delivered the sign and flowers. We drove back to Seattle, dejected.
Guess who wasn’t dejected? Fritzi. After living through the Spanish Flu, two World Wars, and all the loss a person who lives that long experiences, she wasn’t about to let a pandemic get her down.
“(I knew) just to be very patient because it will pass,” said Fritzi. “I have a lot to smile about today.”
That comment nails Fritzi’s personality. She has an ever-present smile and positive attitude.
“I figured if anybody was going to beat it, it would be her. She’s such an optimist – with every bone in her body,” said my sister Carolyn Mills of University Place. “There’s not one negative thing that comes out of her mouth. Her mind is full of positive thoughts. She looks for the bright side of everything and she finds one. Her positivity had to have helped in her recovery.”
Fritzi was one of the first residents in her nursing home to test positive for the coronavirus. To date, ten of her fellow residents have died from it, including her best friend there, 94-year-old Barney Barnhart who died on May 2. Barney was a bigger-than-life storyteller who grew up on a farm in Ferndale and later worked for Boeing. He and Fritzi played cards together in the facility’s library every day.
“I miss him very much. I liked him a lot. (I’m going to miss) his smile the most,” said Fritzi.
In March, a few days before serious social distancing ramped up in Washington, and well before anyone in her facility had contracted the virus, I did a story about Fritzi where she talked about her childhood. During the Spanish Flu of 1918, she remembers her mother and father, who was a tailor, making masks for the U.S. government.
She also had advice about dealing with the coronavirus as it began to spread in our community.
“There’s no sense in playing it down. You have to look it square in the face what’s going on and do everything you can in your power to make it better,” said Fritzi in March.
Fritzi was born Carolyn Fritzi Schassberger to German and Hungarian immigrants in Orville, WA on January 1, 1914. She was the fourth oldest of five children who excelled at music. As a young girl, her family was one of the founders of Longview, Wash., where Fritzi played gigs throughout the area with her three sisters. She charmed crowds playing the piano, organ and saxophone.
Fritzi and her husband Frank Bryant had seven children and lived in the Tri-Cities, Yakima, Seattle and Escondido, California. Later in life, Fritzi became a professional seamstress and fashion designer. She continued to sew, do alterations as well as design until the age of 101. She lived completely independently until a bad fall at the age of 103. Along the way, her family continued to grow.
Today, Fritzi has 21 grandchildren, 47 great-grandchildren, and 10 great-great grandchildren. When the pandemic is over, the first thing she wants to do is see her family, friends and go out to lunch with my mom.
For my Grandma Fritzi, stopping at 106 isn’t in the cards. She’s got more plans in store, including celebrating her 107th birthday.
“Well I’m planning on it,” Fritzi said.