I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
-A children’s skipping rope chant from the 1918 flu epidemic
The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the Great War, known today as World War I (WWI), at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as "Spanish Flu" or "La Grippe" the influenza of 1918-1919 was a global disaster.
My Grandmother, Sarah Lovina Stringam was the nurse in the tiny town of Glenwood, Alberta. Called upon for everything from bruises and scrapes to severe frostbite, she became accepted as the hands and knowledge that made the difference between life and death.
Then came 1918. The Great and horrible war was finally winding down.
The Spanish Flu epidemic was just getting started . . .
From her journals and in her own words, Grandma gives us quite a glimpse of her life at that time:
“I did quite a bit of nursing during the year of the flu epidemic, both for the family and for the neighbours. It was frightening because there were so many deaths, especially women who were pregnant.
One of our hired men was the first to have it at our house. I kept him in his room and wouldn’t let him out until he was over it. My husband took it next and I kept him isolated from the rest of the family until he was well. He was just over it when Lono Brown, one of our friends, came to see if I would help him with his wife.
Lono’s first wife had died a few years before, leaving him with two small boys. He had married a young widow from Utah with two small girls. They had been married less than a year.
I told him, when he came for me, that I was still nursing a baby and would have to come home every four or five hours for that.
There was only one telephone in Glenwood, a toll office at the home of Edward Leavitt. He took me to the telephone and we talked to the doctor.
The doctor was getting only two to four hours sleep a day and just couldn’t keep up with all the calls. He told me what to do and said he could come as soon as he could.
For three days, I went to the Brown home and did what I could.
Every few hours I would go home and drop my clothing into a box in our wash house to fumigate them. Then I would change into clothing I kept in another box and go into my home to nurse the baby and see how the household was managing.
Eldest daughter, Emily was twelve at that time.
On the fourth day, Sister Brown, who was six months pregnant started with labour pains. By this time the doctor had come. He stayed for a while but it looked like it would be some time before the baby came and there were other people needing him so much so he decided he had better go.
Right after he went it looked as if things were going to happen so I asked Lono to go for a midwife, Sister Newby.
She came and delivered the baby, who was stillborn.
She said because she was a midwife she was not allowed to handle a dead body. She told me how to wash and prepare the baby for burial and when I had finished, she went home.
The next few hours were hard. I kept praying that her [Mrs. Brown’s] life would be spared because of the children and because she was so far away from her old home and her people but she kept getting weaker and weaker.
She died about six hours after the baby.
Sister Newby came back and told me what to do to prepare her for burial.
I did it and I was surprised that I was able to do it. It was a testimony to me that you can receive divine guidance in time of need if you ask for it.”
What a truly heartbreaking and terrifying experience. I admire my grandmother and others, like her, who simply ‘carried on’ and made all the difference in their world.