The last major pandemic, the Spanish flu, gripped the world in 1918. That was also the year Helen Easland was born.
Easland is now 103 and living through her second pandemic. She contracted COVID-19 in January and came away with only mild symptoms. She’s also been fully inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine and had no side effects.
“I guess I’m too tough,” she said in her Pierre nursing home on Wednesday.
Easland was among the first to become eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in South Dakota, but that eligibility has now expanded to include people over 65, those with serious underlying health conditions, funeral home workers and school staff.
As of Wednesday, 30% of the state’s population over 16 had received their first dose of the vaccine and 16.48% were fully vaccinated, according to the South Dakota Department of Health.
Easland is anxious to see those numbers keep rising, she said.
“I am very much for vaccinations of all kinds because I have seen in my 103 years many diseases that were cured by vaccination,” she said.
She remembers when the polio vaccine was introduced and quickly eradicated the illness in the U.S. And there have been a slew of other inventions that have amazed Easland in the past century.
“The first cars, crank telephones, I remember the first radios and the first airplanes,” she said.
Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and married in 1917. She was born a year later when they were living on a farm in Minnesota.
“My father quit farming when I was a teenager and bought a theater and pool hall and dance hall,” she said. “My mother used to play the piano for the silent movies.”
She went on to meet her husband, James Easland, who she married in 1938. He worked in a variety of jobs over the years, from a train company to an exotic cattle business.
“He was what you call an entrepreneur. He was always looking for that million dollars,” she said.
They had three children and Easland became a full-time mother, she said.
“There weren’t such things as babysitters — the mothers took care of the children,” she said. “So I went to beauty school but I didn’t work long because then I had two girls and a boy.”
Her son, Roger, eventually moved to Pierre to become a minister at a local church. After her husband passed away, Easland moved to the town to be closer to Roger.
“I like it very much. My son, he had a calling to come here,” she said. “He loved to fish in the Mississippi River and we just kind of went from river to river. He has had many happy days fishing in the Missouri in Pierre.”
Easland recalls joining him on a fishing boat once when he was a young boy.
“It wasn’t the smartest thing because it was just my son and me when he was about 12 years old,” she said. “We went out and the wind came out. Neither one of us weighed very much so we kind of had a rough ride back to shore.”
Easland’s now been in Pierre 20 years and is living in Kelly’s Retirement Home, her fifth senior care center.
The center partnered with Walgreens to vaccinate its residents and on Jan. 6 Easland received her first dose.
That happened to be right before she contracted the virus. She tested positive in mid-January but only had a mild cough and no fever.
The Pfizer vaccine uses mRNA, which instructs a person’s cells to create a harmless piece of the coronavirus called spike protein, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In response, the body develops an immune response and antibodies that fight off the real coronavirus. Unlike many traditional vaccines, mRNA vaccines don’t contain a weakened version of the actual virus and it’s not possible to contract the disease from getting vaccinated, according to the CDC.
But even the first dose can help prevent serious COVID-19 infection, according to a February study published in the medical journal The Lancet.
Easland received her second and final dose on Feb. 4, offering her further protection from potential future infections. She said was relieved to get inoculated and is hoping the rest of the state lines up for the vaccine too.
“If I’m 103 years old and I can do it, anyone can do it,” she said.