Hazel Leonard Yoder was no stranger to hospitals. In 1910, at the age of twenty, Hazel survived surgery for appendicitis. Inspired by those who gave her expert care, she trained as a nurse at the Wyoming State Hospital in Sheridan from 1911 to 1913. Hazel never dreamed that she would perish just four years later in a Northern Pacific Hospital in Missoula, MT, victim to the 1918 influenza.
Hazel Leonard grew up the second of five children in Monarch, Wyoming, a coal mining town. 1910 found her sharing a household with her widowed mother, one brother, and three cousins.
But Hazel sought experience in the wider world. By 1914, she had moved to Great Falls, Montana with her mother and sister. Hazel reveled in the opportunities for professional training, finished her nursing degree, and passed the licensing exam.
In Great Falls, Hazel met a gray-eyed bachelor, Solomon Yoder, who also hailed from Monarch, Wyoming. The two shared their dreams of leaving the coal town behind. Solomon found work as a credit manager while Hazel worked as a salaried, registered nurse. Sol would come by after work to walk with her or take her to the theater.
In 1915, Hazel Leonard married Solomon Yoder, and they moved to Red Lodge, Montana where Solomon took an accounting job with the Northwestern Improvement Company. The newly minted Mrs. Hazel Yoder retired from nursing at the tender age of 25. Or so she thought…
When influenza hit the United States in 1918, the U.S. Army hired nurses to serve stricken communities on the home front. Hazel answered the call. She would earn $75/month as an Army nurse deployed in Montana.
In mid-October, Hazel arrived in Missoula, Montana to nurse the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) at the university. The college had shut down, with only the army training students left, barracked in tents on the oval.
Hazel threw herself into the work, tending sick men in the gymnasium, where cots had been set up, with hanging sheets jerry-rigged between them to block the virus.
But nothing could contain the virus. Why did it strike young adults so hard? Doctors speculated that older people who had survived a flu epidemic in 1893 built a partial immunity to the virus, while those between 18 and 40 were helpless in the face of it.
Barely a week later, Hazel felt a crushing fatigue and realized she had caught the dreaded flu. University administrators moved her to the Northern Pacific Railroad Hospital in Missoula, where her case grew serious. Hazel’s husband Sol kept vigil at her bedside, along with her mother and sister.
While Hazel was bedridden, the downtown lay eerily quiet. The city had shut down schools and businesses. Inmates at the county jail joked that “Jail was the safest place to be.” They saw no one, went nowhere, and regularly disinfected their cells.
In early November, Hazel appeared to be improving. She sat up, talked with her family, and ate. Optimistic, Sol returned to work in Red Lodge. But the influenza had ravaged Hazel Yoder’s heart. She died of heart failure two days later. On November 10th, Sol Yoder buried his young wife at the Red Lodge cemetery.
One day after Hazel Yoder’s death, the Armistice brought WWI to an end. Americans forgot the flu for a day, relieved to know the world war was over. But the war at home continued, as the virus ran through cities and towns, ranches and mines, barracks and hospitals. When all was said and done, Missoula alone claimed 2,566 cases. Statewide, the numbers reached 37,000. Nationwide, the number of deaths topped 350,000, more than the number of Americans who perished in World War I.