Sisters die 102 years apart, each from global pandemics

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Esther Hoeffner and Selma Ryan

Selma Ryan

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A 96-year-old Austin woman died of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the victim of the worst global pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu, which took the life of her sister over a century earlier.

Selma Esther Ryan died Tuesday at an Austin assisted living facility. She wasn’t yet born when her five-year-old sister, Esther, died of the Spanish flu 102 years ago.

Ryan had lived at the assisted living facility for the last three years, her daughter Vicki said.

“On April 3, I got a call from the facility that five residents, including my mother, were running a temperature,” Vicki said.

“Over the next five days I watched through the window as she got sicker and sicker. It was so hard to not be with her. Her 96th birthday was April 11. Our family gathered outside her window, but it was obvious that something terrible had happened.”

Vicki said Ryan was not tested for COVID-19 until after she died. The Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office conducted the test and confirmed the positive infection, she said.

Spanish flu killed the very young while COVID-19 kills the very old

Ryan was born in Hurnville, Texas, about eight miles south of the Oklahoma border and lived on her family’s farm. She came along five years after her sister Esther died during the 1918 pandemic.

Unlike COVID-19, which is deadliest for older people, the Spanish flu was just as deadly for healthy people and for children under 5 years old.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the 1918 pandemic infected 500 million people worldwide, a third of the global population at the time, and killed 50 million people, including 675,000 in the United States.

Esther Hoeffner with her mother Lydia Hoeffner around 1918

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