First-hand accounts of Spanish flu survivors

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First-hand accounts of Spanish flu survivors

Post  cottontop on Thu Sep 18, 2008 7:12 am

Provided by: Canadian Press
Written by: Helen Branswell, Medical Reporter, THE CANADIAN PRESS
Sep. 15, 2008

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."

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