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saintalto

It's Happened Before. An Ongoing Thread.

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I kept a medical history blog for many years and I am going to start posting selections from it that have to do with epidemics and pandemics. I will also post these same posts in my blog. Here is today's selection:

Doctor’s Letter from Camp Devens discussing Spanish Influenza in 1918

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These men start with what appears to be an attack of la grippe or influenza, and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible. 

(…) It takes special trains to carry away the dead. For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce, we used to go down to the morgue (which is just back of my ward) and look at the boys laid out in long rows. It beats any sight they ever had in France after a battle. An extra long barracks has been vacated for the use of the morgue, and it would make any man sit up and take notice to walk down the long lines of dead soldiers all dressed up and laid out in double rows.”

Full Letter below... 

——

Camp Devens, Mass. 
Surgical Ward No. 16 
29 September 1918 

My Dear Burt, 

It is more than likely that you would be interested in the news of this place, for there is a possibility that you will be assigned here for duty, so having a minute between rounds I will try to tell you a little about the situation here as I have seen it in the last week. 

As you know, I have not seen much pneumonia in the last few years in Detroit, so when I came here I was somewhat behind in the niceties of the Army way of intricate diagnosis. Also to make it good, I have had for the last week an exacerbation of my old “Ear Rot” as Artie Ogle calls it, and could not use a stethoscope at all, but had to get by on my ability to “spot” ‘em thru my general knowledge of pneumonias… 

Camp Devens is near Boston, and has about 50,000 men, or did have before this epidemic broke loose. It also has the base hospital for the Division of the Northeast. This epidemic started about four weeks ago, and has developed so rapidly that the camp is demoralized and all ordinary work is held up till it has passed. All assemblages of soldiers taboo. These men start with what appears to be an attack of la grippe or influenza, and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a new mixed infection here, but what I don’t know. My total time is taken up hunting rales, rales dry or moist, sibilant or crepitant or any other of the hundred things that one may find in the chest, they all mean but one thing here — pneumonia — and that means in about all cases death. 

The normal number of doctors here is about 25 and that has been increased to over 250, all of whom (of course excepting me) have temporary orders — “Return to your proper station on completion of work” — Mine says, “Permanent Duty,” but I have been in the Army just long enough to learn that it doesn’t always mean what it says. So I don’t know what will happen to me at the end of this. We have lost an outrageous number of nurses and doctors, and the little town of Ayer is a sight. It takes special trains to carry away the dead. For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce, we used to go down to the morgue (which is just back of my ward) and look at the boys laid out in long rows. It beats any sight they ever had in France after a battle. An extra long barracks has been vacated for the use of the morgue, and it would make any man sit up and take notice to walk down the long lines of dead soldiers all dressed up and laid out in double rows. We have no relief here; you get up in the morning at 5:30 and work steady till about 9:30 p.m., sleep, then go at it again. Some of the men of course have been here all the time, and they are tired. 

If this letter seems somewhat disconnected overlook it, for I have been called away from it a dozen times, the last time just now by the Officer of the Day, who came in to tell me that they have not as yet found at any of the autopsies any case beyond the red hepatitis stage. It kills them before it gets that far. 

I don’t wish you any hard luck Old Man, but do wish you were here for a while at least. It’s more comfortable when one has a friend about. The men here are all good fellows, but I get so damned sick o’ pneumonia that when I eat I want to find some fellow who will not “talk shop” but there ain’t none, no how. We eat it, sleep it, and dream it, to say nothing of breathing it 16 hours a day. I would be very grateful indeed it you would drop me a line or two once in a while, and I will promise you that if you ever get into a fix like this, I will do the same for you. 

Each man here gets a ward with about  150 beds (mine has 168), and has an Asst. Chief to boss him, and you can imagine what the paper work alone is — fierce — and the Government demands all paper work be kept up in good shape. I have only four day nurses and five night nurses (female) a ward-master, and four orderlies. So you can see that we are busy. I write this in piecemeal fashion. It may be a long time before I can get another letter to you, but will try. Good-by old Pal,

‘God be with you till we meet again’

Keep the Bouells open, 

Roy

—–

Content source: An episode of the PBS documentary series, American Experience, called “Influenza 1918″. Unfortunately the webpage that had additional content, including this letter, is currently down. I was lucky to have saved an archive of it.

Image source: Boston Red Cross volunteers assemble masks at Camp Devens, MA.

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Posted (edited)

"This short documentary tells the story the once-thriving town of Okak, an Inuit settlement on the northern Labrador coast. Moravian missionaries evangelized the coast and encouraged the growth of Inuit settlements, but it was also a Moravian ship that brought the deadly Spanish influenza during the world epidemic of 1919. The Inuit of the area were decimated, and Okak was abandoned. Through diaries, old photos and interviews with survivors, this film relates the story of the epidemic and examines the relations between natives and missionaries." -source

This film is chilling. Native people were especially hard hit by the virus. The story of Okak is a pandemic at its most devastating.

Edited by saintalto

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Thank you, Saint. It’s good to remember that people have been through this before. Not really so long ago. Three of my grandparents were born in 1904, and one in 1905. They all lived through the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the upheavals of the 60’s and, in my maternal grandfather’s case, 9/11.

Humans are amazing. We rebuild from rubble. We find new ways. We go on.

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Posted (edited)

Here are a few quotes from interviews with people who survived the 1918 Influenza pandemic. I have provided sources.

In New Zealand:

" It wasn't safe for men to go out on the farms alone in case they were struck down and no one knew where they were. So one of the children, or someone, they generally went in twos. When we wanted to do our shopping, we had to go into Waverly by a horse and gig, and when we got into the grocer's shop, we rattled a kerosene tin which was hanging from a beam of the verandah. They came out to their door, took our order and then put the things on the pavement, and we collected them and put our money into a mug with disinfectant in it, and they collected it out of the mug." - source

In Philadelphia:

Anna Lavin: The undertaker just ran, I don’t know how many, into their wagon and took them to the cemetery and that was it and had to dig your own grave. I mean, the families had to dig their own graves. Grave diggers were sick and that was the terrible thing.

Anne Van Dyke: They didn’t even bury the people. They found them stuck in garages and everything.

Elizabeth: Yes, oh, it was terrible, the flu.

Van Dyke: You had to go, my mother went and shaved the men and laid them out, thinking that they were going to be buried, you know. They wouldn’t bury ‘em. They had so many died that they keep putting them in garages. That garage on Richmond Street. Oh, my gosh, he had a couple of garages full of caskets.

Charlie Hardy: Full of bodies?

Elizabeth: Bodies! On Thompson and Allegheny, Schedpa. He used to get the people and take them out and pile them in the garage. And people smelled something and they notified him. There he’d take the people out of the coffin and put them in the garage and give the coffin to somebody else and got paid for it. He lost his license and all. The smell would knock you, it would run down through the alley, so they caught up with him. People used to die. Oh, they used to die. It was an awful disease.

-------

“Now I remember so well, very well, directly across the street from us a boy about 7 or 8 years old died, and they used to just pick you up and wrap you up in a sheet and put you in a patrol wagon. So the mother and father were screaming, “let me get a macaroni box!” Before, any kind of pasta used to come in these wooden boxes about this long and that high, so that 20 pounds of macaroni fitted in the box. “Please, please, let me put him in the macaroni box! Let me put him in the box! Don’t take him away like that!”

And that was it… they were taking people out left and right. And the undertaker would pile them up and put them in the patrol wagons and take them away.”

- Louise Apuchase 

Source

Edited by saintalto

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Thanks for this thread. As someone who's been on and off suicidal for a long time, faces addiction, and has watched way too many friends die of diseases the authorities didn't care about until it was too late (HIV anyone...) the feeling of "it's happening again..." has been real.

 

I started writing a song about it, if I ever finished maybe I'll post somewhere.

 

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