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Spanish Flu Survivors Remember
From Patricia Doyle, PhD
Hello Jeff - Most of those who survived the Spanish Flu have passed on. The only ones left now are those who were young children at the time.
I found the following stories of some survivors interesting...a great insight into what life is like during a pandemic. If we read between the lines, we also learn what to expect and what we need to do to prepare.
Schools, churches and businesses closed which means people must have their own supplies. Masks, gloves and medical supplies will quickly be in short supply. Many staples are now imported from China and other countries which means they won't be available.
How can one keep their immune system functioning if they cannot get nourishing food and clean water, and in some cases electricity could also be a luxury.
Spanish Flu Survivors Recount Fear, Nosebleeds, Makeshift Morgues
By Helen Branswell
The Canadian Press
VANCOUVER ­ Louise Brooks has only fleeting, fever-clouded memories of her encounter with the Spanish Lady.
She recalls the pattern on the wallpaper on her bedroom walls wafting gently, a trick the fever played on her young mind. She recalls the loving care of her mother, Gertrude ­ the only person, besides the family doctor, who was allowed to enter the room where she lay.
"And I also remember having copious nosebleeds," says Brooks, a chic and active 99-year-old currently living in West Vancouver.
Though not a symptom of seasonal influenza, nosebleeds were a common feature among people struck by the Spanish flu.
"My impression is that at that time the doctor told my mother that it was one of the things that helped me get through it," recounts Brooks, who grew up in Vancouver's Kitsilano Point neighbourhood.
Brooks ­ then Louise Elliott ­ was nine when she fell ill in the fall of 1918. She was the only member of her family to contract the disease that was sweeping the globe, spreading fear as fast as contagion.
"Oh, they (people) were really frightened of it because there'd been news of it coming towards them all the time," she says, noting some wore garlic in muslin sacks around their necks in the hopes it would ward off the disease.
"The undertaking parlours couldn't handle the bodies as people died. And I have this vague memory that they were having to use school auditoriums and places like that to store bodies temporarily."
Her father, Lloyd, and older brothers Phil and Ben were barred from the sick room, though Brooks says they would poke their heads around the sheet hanging in the doorway to check on her as she started to recover.
There was great relief in the household when it was clear the baby of the family would pull through. But Brooks' family did not escape unscathed.
Her mother's sister, who lived in Massachusetts, lost her husband and an infant child to the virus within 24 hours of each other. Left with only a young son, her aunt became a public health nurse ­ and an inspiration to Brooks, who followed the same career path.
"She lost everything she'd had ­ her home and everything," says Brooks. "She kept on and developed a life for herself and her little boy."
Such tragedies were common at the time, she says. "Looking back at it now, you know it was a very difficult time to live through."
Rev. Francis Stevens remembers feeling cheated and adrift when the Spanish flu swept through his household and East Vancouver neighbourhood.
The sense of being cheated came from the fact that Stevens was sick at Christmas.
"It was a very dead Christmas," recalls Stevens, who will mark his 102nd birthday in early October.
"The folks tried to make things good for the children. But with everybody more or less sick and Mother worried about her family, it wasn't a very happy time at all."
Stevens, the eldest of five children and the first in his family to get sick, recovered relatively quickly. But schools didn't reopen in January and he and his playmates were admonished not to gather elsewhere to ease their boredom.
"We were sort of at a loss. I mean the children," explains Stevens, who as an adult became a United Church minister.
"Your school and your home were your two places of security. And both were collapsing."
"My friends were either sick or their families were keeping them in the house so they wouldn't get the flu. And I was getting over it so I wanted to get going again. But we didn't get going for awhile."
Stevens' father was Harry or H.H. Stevens, a Conservative member of Parliament for one of the Vancouver ridings. Fortunately for the Stevens family, Parliament wasn't sitting in the fall of 1918 so Mr. Stevens was home.
He was forced to take on kitchen duty as influenza struck all five children and eventually his wife. Then he too fell ill.
"I can recall in January my father getting the meals when he was hardly able to walk around," Rev. Stevens says. "And I would help him. I actually helped him make porridge."
All pulled through, although the youngest, a three-year-old named Douglas, had been a sickly baby and gave them a scare. "He had a terrible time during the flu. My mother thought he was going to die."
Most of the people in the neighbourhood were sick. A cousin got sick and died in the space of a few days. Still, awareness of the enormity of the event was slow to take hold, Stevens says.
"Well, it was cumulative, like a snow slide or something. It got worse and worse. It got so bad that some of the churches didn't have service. We didn't go to Sunday school. School was closed. They told people not to go anywhere where there was a crowd."
"That was pressed on people, in the paper, almost every issue. 'Don't go out in the crowds."'
Nearly a century later, he remembers the loneliness of the time, but doesn't recall a sense of relief when the viral assault subsided. "I don't remember the all-clear. I just remember that we went on."
Ninety years after the Spanish flu laid her entire household low, Anna Shillinglaw remembers the kindness of neighbours that helped her family pull through.
Born Anna Rott, she grew up on a homestead in southwest Saskatchewan, near Bitter Lake. Her father, August Rott, was "one of the farmers of Saskatchewan," she says with pride.
Shillinglaw, whose 98th birthday is in mid-September, was the fourth of seven children. All caught the flu bug, including her parents.
Shillinglaw remembers that as she was coming down with the illness, she was frightened to find herself alone in a bedroom.
"I put my head in the pillows and I cried and I cried. And my mother said to my dad: 'Give that girl a lickin.' And my dad said: 'Would I give that girl a lickin'? That child is sick."'
She recalls little of her battle with the virus, though something that befell a younger brother, Benny, is etched in her memory. At one point, she says, he tried to get up but was weak and leaned against the wall for support.
"And thick red blood, clotted blood, came out of his nose. And I thought 'I'm going to see what happened here.' And I went closer and it smelled just like a dead critter."
No one in the family was well enough to tend the animals on the Rott farm. "We were all in bed. Nobody (was) up any more then."
A boy from a neighbouring homestead came to help, bringing soup his mother had made. Decades on, Shillinglaw still is eager to acknowledge her family's benefactor, Henry Kindopp.
"Put that in," she says of his name. "My dad always said 'I always did like him. You could depend on him.'"
The entire Rott family was in bed for two weeks, but all recovered.
"After we got all up and around, Dad said: 'I thought this girl here, I just about thought we just about lost her.' And he said 'She wouldn't move. She was just like no life there."'
"And that woke me up. He was talking about me."
Shillinglaw, who now lives in Langley, southeast of Vancouver, recalls hearing of many local people who were ill, some of whom died. One woman's husband was so addled with fever that he kept threatening to throw himself in the well.
"She had one of her brothers come and stay with her in case he tried to do something delirious."
The Spanish flu claimed the life of the woman who would have been Anna Rott's mother-in-law. Ada Shillinglaw, who lived in Alberta, died at age 39 of the flu a few days after giving birth to a baby. The infant died as well.
"It was a great disturbance across the country," says Shillinglaw, who named a daughter Ada after the mother-in-law she never knew.
Isabelle Dunn was one of the fortunate ones in 1918. When the Spanish flu swept through MacGregor, Man., 130 kilometres west of Winnipeg, Dunn ­ then 10-year-old Isabelle Moore ­ did not contract the vicious influenza bug.
Still, she remembers the disruption in the community. Her father was a policeman and was often pressed into service to help families who couldn't tend to their farms because they were too sick.
As Dunn recalls, the women who worked the local telephone exchange would call around to homes with telephones to check on how people were fending. They would then try to round up help for those who needed it.
Dunn's father took a lot of those calls.
"They'd go to the farms and let the stock out and feed them or give them water, because they couldn't last very long if they were tied in with no water. And people were very, very ill," says Dunn, 100, who now lives in Burnaby, B.C.
"He kept going out when he could and doing work like that."
Dunn and her eight siblings, however, were on strict orders not to stray from home.
"There were an awful lot of sick people. And the schools and church ­ everything was closed," she recalls.
"And we were kids and we had to stay home in our own yard. You didn't run around so much."
Dunn's father made his children work on lessons at home. When they went back to school, both Dunn and one of her brothers got put into a grade ahead, "because we were so advanced. I guess that's because we didn't get the flu. We had to sit there and do our homework."
Dunn's stepmother, who was a district nurse, did fall ill. But she survived. Others were not so lucky.
Dunn recalls that a big empty house in the town was turned into an emergency hospital, and that caring for the sick ­ and the dead ­ put a strain on the community.
"Lots and lots of people passed away and they couldn't bury them. There were just not enough people to do all this."
"Bodies were stacked up in an old hotel down there, I know that."
She remembers one case in particular, a boy who fell ill in the spring wave of 1919.
"One of the boys in our class lived with his brother on a farm about a mile and a half or two miles out of town. And he went home from school and found his brother just lying on the ground and he had possibly laid there all day. And he was very ill."
"And this boy ran back to our place because we had the nearest telephone."
The ill youngster was taken by train that night to a Winnipeg hospital, but was released several weeks later ­ sent home to die. He did, says Dunn.
Colleen Levesque wasn't yet a gleam in her parents' eyes when the Spanish flu raced through northern British Columbia.
But the tales her parents, Amadee and Sybil Levesque, told her as she was growing up made the events of the time strikingly real for the 86-year-old Levesque, who now lives in Courtenay on Vancouver Island.
Just weeks after her parents were married on Thanksgiving weekend in 1918 they went to Vancouver to get supplies for the logging camp where they lived in the Charlotte Islands.
On the trip back to Prince Rupert, people on the boat began to get ill. When they reached Prince Rupert, armed policemen were waiting at the dock, Levesque's parents told her.
"Prince Rupert was at that time quarantined because there were so many sick people. And the captain didn't want to take them back to Vancouver, because he said 'We don't have enough food on the boat to feed these people,"' she says.
"And so Dad said to the captain 'I think it's a good idea if you have one of your deck hands put down a ramp. And if you'll do that, I'll take my wife's hand (and) we'll go down the ramp first and our crew can follow us. And as soon as we're off the boat, then you can put your boat in reverse and get out of here."'
"And Mum said the policemen on the dock were shooting their guns into the air because they didn't want them there. They had so many sick people they couldn't take any more."
A born storyteller, Levesque recounts the memories as if they were her own.
"Mum said it was just really scary. They didn't want any more people because they had so many they could hardly look after them."
"But you can understand how they (the Levesques and their crew) felt. They wanted to get back to the logging camp and get working. 'Course, it ended up quite a few of them died."
The group managed to disembark at Prince Rupert. But Sybil Levesque was already dizzy with the onset of flu. Her daughter says she and another woman were made to spend the night in a warehouse.
"And they didn't know till the morning they were sitting on coffins. There were three coffins in there with dead people in them."
A cook from the logging camp travelled to Prince Rupert to look after the sick workers. The man, who went by the name of Dada Sauve, forced Sybil Levesque to eat oranges. She later credited his care with pulling her through.
Amadee Levesque was also ill, but was cared for elsewhere in the town. His daughter says he recounted seeing flu-stricken men rise from their beds in delirium and keel over dead.
"Mum said when she met (up with) Dad, he couldn't even lift his suitcase, he was that weak," Colleen Levesque says.
The Canadian Press
Patricia A. Doyle DVM, PhD Bus Admin, Tropical Agricultural Economics Univ of West Indies Please visit my "Emerging Diseases" message board at: http://www.emergingdisease.org/phpbb/index.php Also my new website: http://drpdoyle.tripod.com/ Zhan le Devlesa tai sastimasa Go with God and in Good Health
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