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101-year-old recalls 1918 flu epidemic

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  • 101-year-old recalls 1918 flu epidemic

    101-year-old recalls 1918 flu epidemic

    LISBON (AP) - Thelma Trom's happy childhood was punctuated that fall by sinister coughs.

    The coughs silenced two of her aunts and sickened most of her family during the influenza epidemic of 1918 - a biological wildfire that probably started in China, then smoldered before re-igniting in Spain and spreading around the globe.

    Although just 12 years old, young Thelma Trom had two unique vantage points from which to watch the epidemic as it swept through Hatton and the surrounding countryside that October and November.

    She rode along with the local doctor, a neighbor from across the street, when he made house calls in a horse-drawn sleigh. "He was so exhausted he would lots of times fall asleep," recalled Trom, still vigorous at the age of 101.

    And stored inside the long garage behind her undertaker uncle's house next door, where the horse-drawn hearse normally was kept, were the coffins of those the doctor couldn't save. The garage once sheltered nine caskets waiting for families to bury their dead.

    Dr. Andrew Arthur Kjelland was a one-man medical crisis team. On his rounds, the children stayed outside, covered in furs to stay warm. They often drove the horses in circles to keep them warm.

    "We never went in the residences," said Trom. "He didn't want us to get sick. I can't remember that I was frightened at all. I just felt it was a duty."

    The doctor prescribed hot lemonade to soothe his patients' throats, and goose grease to be rubbed on their chests.

    "The main thing was to loosen up the phlegm," she said. Some flu patients contracted pneumonia. Others developed pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining around the lungs.

    "Coughing was really painful," she said. "I don't know what the doctor gave them for cough medicine."

    Many of those who died were young adults. "Especially the pregnant women, they had no chance," she said.

    One of Trom's aunts, who was pregnant, became one of the first victims of the flu in Hatton. She likely caught it from a sick friend who had come home from the University of North Dakota, which had shut down.

    To contain the outbreak, public health officials ordered all schools to close, as well as all churches, theaters and public meetings.

    But the flu virus spread with cruel efficiency nonetheless, first arriving in North Dakota on Sept. 14 in New Rockford, apparently carried by a Marine home on leave from service in World War I. By Oct. 6, 125 cases were reported in Fargo - a number that mushroomed to 2,000 just three days later.

    Three doctors and 14 nurses died throughout the state. Churches and schools served as temporary hospitals. Desperate appeals for volunteers went out.

    North Dakota's official death toll was 1,378, a number contemporary health officials believe was grossly underreported. Applying the national mortality rate, North Dakota's death toll probably was closer to 3,235.

    Death never was far from Thelma Trom, who helped her mortician uncle groom the bodies.

    "Most of the time they didn't get funerals," she said. "It took its toll, believe you me, on the city."

    Gradually, Hatton recovered and the wave of sickness passed. By Thanksgiving, families were beginning to gather again.

    Although most of her family caught the flu, Trom escaped illness. "I'm not flu-prone at all," she said.

    A retired teacher, she still drives her Chevy Cavalier, a 1988 model with 44,000 miles. "I'm disgustingly healthy, a tough Norwegian," she said.

    Still, life never was the same after the flu year of 1918.

    "I never was a child after that," she said.