A century ago, diphtheria was a common — and feared — disease.
Happily, a vaccine was developed to defeat it. But until then, many tough stories came from people who experienced it. Jeanette Longtine, Moorhead, sends along such a story.
In 1917, Jeanette’s grandparents, John and Ida Spink, lived in Warwick, N.D., south of Devils Lake. John ran a livery barn there.
Their daughter Margaret, who was 4 that year, eventually became Jeanette‘s mother. And as an adult, she wrote of that fearful time back in 1917.
“The dreaded word ‘diphtheria’ spread through the town,” Margaret wrote. “Several families were stricken, among them our friends the Fergusons. They had already lost 3-year-old Tillie and 7-year-old Sarah to the disease. Two little caskets stood outside their door.
“The sorrowful sight frightened Mama and she prayed that we not be victims of the epidemic.
“Kady (Margaret’s older sister) came home from school one day. She had a sore throat and was not feeling well.
“Dr. Carter was quick to respond when he was called to our place. Upon examining Kady, he found the tell-tale symptoms. A gray skin was forming in Kady’s throat. He then examined me and found the same tissue in my throat.
“For some unknown reason, I was not as sick as my sister.
“The anti-toxin supply in Warwick had already been depleted. Unless Kady received antitoxin by the next morning, the doctor was of the opinion she might die.
“Mama, who was usually so composed, began to cry.
“Trains from Devils Lake to Warwick were not due until later the next day. There had to be a solution to the problem.
“Mr. Thompson, the section boss for the railroad, said he could not lend Papa a hand cart, but could look the other way if Papa took one. (Or so Papa said).
“Papa took the vehicle and headed for Devils Lake. He pumped the hand cart as fast as he could until he reached his destination.
“When he arrived, the drug store was closed, which caused Papa to go to the home of the druggist.
“Obligingly, the druggist obtained the antitoxin and gave it to my father.
“To be sure, no time was wasted returning to the hand cart. Twenty-six miles had to be covered before dawn.
“Papa exerted all his strength, energy and determination and delivered the antitoxin on time.
“Kady was given five shots in the area of her heart. I was given one shot in each side, and the rest of the family each were given one preventative shot.
“A registered nurse was hired to care for our needs, and a quarantine was nailed to our door.
“Papa had to stay in his office downstairs to attend to business. He could not enter the living quarters, but tossed packages of Black Jack gum up through the open window in our sick room. The gum was allowed and was to sooth our throats.
“I waited eagerly for that gum to land on my bed, as it was a diversion, as were the antics of the nurse. She pretended to tie the cat up by the tail and sang cute little songs to help pass the time.
“At last the quarantine was lifted, but that was not the end. Everything in our house had to be disinfected.
“The highlight for me was staying in the hotel while the rooms above the livery barn were being fumigated.
“After being confined indoors and in bed for so long, going to the hotel seemed like a happy vacation.”
Jeanette says Kady, who was vie years older than Jeanette’s mother, lived until 1978, when she died in Wisconsin, and Jeanette’s mom died in 2002 in Washington.
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