MINNEAPOLIS—It was an average Tuesday morning at the VA hospital. Elderly Sam Nilva awoke in his bed with crusty eyelids from sleep. He blinked at the ceiling a few times. A nurse brought some good news.
“You’re going home today, Sam,” she said.
Home. After being stuck in a sterile room for God only knews how long, the Minneapolis VA hospital was discharging him.
Another nurse leaned over Sam’s bed. Her surgical mask, goggles, and face shield could not cover her award-winning smile.
“And guess what?” she said. “We have a little celebration for you, birthday boy.”
Next, the nurses had all gathered in Sam’s room, holding handwritten cards, posters, and a multi-colored banner that read: “Happy Birthday.”
The little old man didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. His face said enough. He was taking it all in. More nurses were chiming in via video phone on a monitor beside his bed. Everyone was cheering. It was a great day.
Sam recovered from a recent brain surgery, and he’s been in this hospital fighting COVID-19. It was no day at the beach. Some weren’t sure if he’d beat it, but he did. And he did it with flying colors.
Though it should come as no surprise. On Apr. 29, 1919, Samuel Nilva came into this world, and he’s seen a lot worse in his life.
It’s hard to imagine what the world was like back in such an ancient era, but it was a turbulent time to be alive. Woodrow Wilson was in office. The government had just voted to protect sections of virgin land that would become national parks, which was considered a wacky idea by many critics. Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” was just officially published.
Congress had just approved the 19th amendment so that women could vote. Einstein proved Newton’s theory of space to be dead wrong. A little football club in Green Bay, Wisconsin, decided to start calling themselves “The Packers.”
And the whole world was dying from a Spanish Flu epidemic.
To call this period Hell on Earth would be like calling the Grand Canyon a ditch. Americans were staying inside just to keep from dying.
Theaters and silent-movie houses were boarded up. Those infected were tying white scarves around their doorknobs to signal the rest of the world to keep away. Sometimes, the hanky stayed on the doorknobs until everyone inside was carried out with a sheet draped over them.
So try to imagine this scene: You’ve been stuck inside during a nationwide quarantine. One day, your neighbor knocks on your door, tears in his eyes. He is asking for your help to carry his dead wife out of his house.
So you carry her down the street to a dancehall that’s been converted into a temporary morgue. In some areas, there are so many dead bodies to deal with that communities are setting up makeshift morgues in local gymnasiums, fellowship halls, and schools.
That was the world Sam was born into.
And this was just the historical appetizer. Things got a lot crazier.
For starters: World War Had just been in full swing before Sam’s birth, killing about 40 million. And the hits kept coming. When Sam was a 10-year-old, the stock market crashed. Bank executives were leaping off ledges in crowded cities when they learned that they were ruined. America entered a Great Depression, setting off a chain reaction of financial ruin around the world.
Meanwhile, dust storms chewed at the Great American Midwest, forming black clouds that blotted out the sun and killed children with dust pneumonia. The earth was literally blowing away.
And as if this era didn’t already feature enough Biblical-style tribulation, they made beer illegal.
But even the 20s and 30s were just a dress rehearsal for the real problems ahead. The 40s brought Hitler, Stalin, another World War, 85 million deaths worldwide, and polio epidemics.
By the 1950s, the Cold War was on. Life was better, but people were still scared of what was next. American dads were building concrete bunkers in their backyards, behind the kids’ swing sets.
Schoolchildren were practicing atomic-bomb duck-and-cover drills, wherein students were trained to take shelter from nuclear threats by hiding beneath nuclear-attack-resistant school desks.
And as if this world couldn’t get any more out-of-control and unsettled, along came Perry Como.
Sam went through it all. He survived it all. When he got COVID-19, he told his daughter he wasn’t worried.
“I’ve survived polio,” Sam said. “I’ve survived World War Two, I’ve survived so many things, and I want people to know we can get through this.”
If that sounds a little too optimistic to you, that’s probably because you’re too young to know better. Just ask Sam. This world has been through hard times before, and it will see them again. But according to Sam, we can get through.
When Sam left the hospital, Minneapolis VA staff nurses made a big ordeal over him. You should have seen it. They sang, they cheered, they laughed. When EMTs wheeled him down the hallway, Sam’s bed rolled past a barrage of medical workers who whooped and hollered.
Hospital personnel lined the halls, clapping, their gloved hands, making muffled applause, wearing protective face gear. Some tossed handmade greeting cards onto Sam’s bed when it wheeled by. And the fanfare didn’t end until the ambulance disappeared on the horizon.
They weren’t just celebrating a birthday. They weren’t simply celebrating a recovery. These people were celebrating Samuel Nilva, for proving that humans are a lot stronger than we think they are.
Happy 101st birthday, Sam.