FORT ERIE, Ont.—The prognosis was dire. Doctors told 5-year-old Donald Jacobi’s family that he would be dead by the next morning, another victim of the Spanish flu that, starting in 1918, killed 50 million people.
Authorities wouldn’t even let the severely ill young Donald into the old Meyer Hospital — since replaced with Erie County Medical Center. Instead, he was dispatched to the “pest house” behind the hospital, where flu sufferers were sent to die.
“What are you going to do for him?” his persistent mother, Magdalena — all 4-foot-11 of her — asked the doctor at the hospital.
“There’s nothing we can do for him, because he’ll be dead by morning,” the doctor replied.
His family wasn’t even allowed to take him home to die. The law said he had to remain in the “pest house,” to be fully quarantined.
But you couldn’t tell that to Magdalena Jacobi. She then uttered the punch line that’s been passed down through the generations of the large Jacobi clan:
“If he’s going to die, he’s going to die at home.”
So the family bundled up young Donald G. Jacobi— there were no car heaters in those days — and took him back to South Buffalo, where he lay unconscious for about seven days. And then recovered.
Jacobi, now 96, lived through perhaps the worst flu in history, a pandemic that killed three times as many people as died in World War I.
The healthy, pain-free Jacobi now lives in a Fort Erie retirement home, where he still loves telling stories.
There are no short interviews with Donald Jacobi, but he doesn’t have much to say about the current swine flu epidemic.
“The only thing I can say is to keep breathing and don’t fall down,” he said. “And the greatest thing in the world is rest.”
For a man who has lived more than 90 years past his doctor’s 1918 prediction, Jacobi is surprising in his assessment that people should listen to what health experts say about preventing the flu.
“If anyone second-guesses the medical profession, I think they’re stupid,” Jacobi said during an hourlong interview in the Garrison Place retirement home on Garrison Road.
As a first-grader at St. John the Evangelist School, he came home one day in the fall of 1918 saying he didn’t feel well.
Young Donald was given the treatment of the day: drink a “hot whisky sling” — a shot of whisky with some hot water — and get under the covers of his feather bed.
A Dr. Hurley—no one in the family knows his first name — twice came over to the family home on Indian Orchard Place. On the second visit, he advised the family to take Donald to the hospital.
So his brother Norman drove the family’s nine-passenger touring car to the hospital, first picking up Father Hurd from St. John the Evangelist Church. The prognosis was so bad that Father Hurd promised to give Donald the “full shot,” both his First Communion and last rites.
Norman carried his brother inside the pest house, where a nurse directed him to a cot.
“The doctor came over, felt my head — I don’t remember any thermometer — and said, ‘He’s very serious. Most everybody in [here] will be dead by morning.’ ”
“How about him?” Donald’s mother asked.
“Including him,” the doctor replied.
That’s when Magdalena stepped in, to pronounce that her son wasn’t going to be left in the pest house to die.
Then Father Hurd, whom Jacobi remembers as a big guy, stepped in.
“I wouldn’t argue with her,” he told the doctor. “She’s a very determined lady.”
Mrs. Jacobi had ordered her son Norman to go to the car and retrieve the steamer rug. They wrapped the sick young child in the rug, let him lie down in the back seat on his mother’s lap and headed back to South Buffalo.
Jacobi doesn’t remember the trip back home. He apparently lapsed into unconsciousness.
His family knew all about epidemics. His older sister, Hortense, had died in the diphtheria epidemic a few months before Donald was born in 1913.
So the family farmed out the other six children to relatives’ homes and set Donald up in the downstairs dining room. The family put a “Quarantine” sign on the door, and nobody was allowed to leave or enter. Some of his older brothers brought food and left it in the milk box.
“Every time I opened my mouth, I got butter soup,” Jacobi said.
His father, Joe, later told him he gave his young son a hot whisky sling every night so he could sleep.
“I’ve been sober ever since,” he said.
On about the seventh day, young Donald looked out the window and saw his friend, Rabbit-Ear Wolley—named for his acute hearing, not the size of his ears—throwing snow at the window, trying to get his attention. It worked.
The family summoned Dr. Hurley, who promptly drained the lymph glands under Donald’s jaw. His brother Frank told him that the doctor put in monkey glands.
“I believed him,” he said.
Jacobi went on to St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute — at its former home on Main Street, near the current Delta Sonic car wash — a postgraduate year at Bennett High School and then the University of Notre Dame, where he now serves as class secretary for the class of 1935. Then came a long career in the clothing business, mostly with Jacobi Brothers and Don Jacobi Inc.