Sister André has lived through the 1918 flu pandemic, two World Wars and "many sad events," she once said. As Europe's oldest known person, she was to turn 117 Thursday and has now accomplished another feat: defeating the coronavirus, with barely any complication.
"She's recovered, along with all the residents here," said David Tavella, the spokesperson at the Ste. Catherine Labouré nursing home in Toulon, a city in southeastern France, where André resides. "She is calm, very radiant, and she is quite looking forward to celebrating her 117th birthday," he said, adding that the home's most famous resident was resting Wednesday and needed a break from interviews.
The coronavirus swept through the nursing home last month, just as nurses began consulting residents about vaccinations; 81 of its 88 residents became infected, including André, and 11 eventually died.
Tavella said that until last month no case had been detected in the nursing home since the beginning of the pandemic. Still, the outbreak was a stark reminder that the virus has been devastating in places where the most vulnerable reside, even with stringent restrictions that have turned many care homes in the country and elsewhere in Europe into fortresses.
André remained isolated for weeks and felt a bit "patraque," or off-color, Tavella said, but she blamed the virus and not her age. She slept more than usual, but she prayed and remained asymptomatic. This week, she became the oldest known person to have survived COVID-19.
"She kept telling me, 'I'm not afraid of COVID because I'm not afraid of dying, so give my vaccine doses to those who need them,' " Tavella said.
André's story has made headlines in France, providing some uplifting news in a country where thousands of nursing home residents have died.
France began vaccinating health care workers this week, but authorities have faced criticism for a sluggish rollout that has so far kept France struggling with a rising number of infections and no end to restrictions in sight. As of Wednesday, 2.2 million people had been vaccinated, less than 3% of the population.
Nursing home managers have restricted visits or asked relatives to wear gowns, masks, gloves and glasses to protect residents. Many residents have remained isolated for nearly a year, unable to spend Christmas holidays with their families.
André was born Lucile Randon in 1904 and took her ecclesiastical title in 1944 when she joined a Catholic charitable order. Now blind and in a wheelchair, she has at times felt lonely and dependent, she told French news outlets in interviews in recent years, but has accepted the ordeal that the pandemic has brought, Tavella said.
"When you've been an adolescent during a pandemic that killed tens of millions and seen the horrors of two world wars, you do put things into perspective," Tavella added.
Tavella said André remained patient during weeks of isolation, although the talkative nun inquired a few times about when she could see people again.
André was looking forward to her birthday meal: port wine as a lunch starter, followed by foie gras with hot figs. Then roasted capon with mushrooms and sweet potatoes as a main course, followed by a two-cheese platter — Roquefort and goat cheese — and maybe a few glasses of red wine.
And finally, her favorite dessert: a raspberry-and-peach-flavored baked Alaska. That will come with a glass of Champagne.