A patient’s haunting experience in a Coal Region influenza hospital in 1918

“When you realize that you might have been the one lying there so cold and still, you have a feeling of horror. What a little thing a life is after all, and how quickly it is gone.”

Influenza killed more than 675,000 Americans when it descended on the United States in 1918-1919. The deadly strain killed more than 50 million people world wide. What was it like to fall sick with the deadliest strain of disease in human history?

Influenza 1918
Nurses carrying a patient during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic (LOC) 

A reporter for the Pottsville Republican wrote about their experience with “Spanish flu” – the high fever, the bone-rattling chills, the aches – and what it was like in an emergency hospital ward in Pennsylvania’s Coal Region. The account was published in the Republican on November 1, 1918.

It provides a chilling peek inside the deadliest pandemic in human history from one of its victims, a writer who was among those lucky to survive to record an account of what they saw, smelled, and felt inside a Pottsville hospital ward in October 1918.

Flu Patient Headline

My Experience as a Patient in Flu Emergency Hospital

Although we have heard a great deal of talk about the Emergency Hospitals since the beginning of the influenza epidemic, yet there are a great many people who have very little, if any, idea of just what emergency hospitals are like, and how the patients who are sent there are treated. For the benefit of the inexperienced public this article has been written. It gives the experience of one of the “Flu” victims, a member of the “Republican” staff, who will endeavor to give an idea of epidemic treatment.

Let’s start at the beginning with the symptoms. First, a violent headache, then pains in the back, chest, stomach and sides, and finally a feeling that you didn’t care whether school kept or not. As there were no doctors to be secured, because of the large number of the calls, it was decided that the best thing to do would be to go to the school. As there were no doctors to be secured, because of the large number of the calls, it was decided that the best thing to do would be to go to the hospital, where the proper medical aid could be given because at this time the State aid had not yet arrived and the local physicians could not attend to all the calls.

The ambulance came to the house, and was taken out to it. I had been asked my name, address, and the church of which I was a member, and other information which was considered necessary. When we arrived at the hospital, I was furnished with a nightgown and immediately put to bed, give a dunk of ice water, and an ice camp was pat on my head to allay the fever. I was then given salts and castor oil at regular intervals. It was not long before the treatment began to take effect and I was able to look about and observe the room, which was of great interest to me, because I had no idea that Emergency Hospitals were different from regular hospitals. Imagine my surprise to find that, instead of furniture, as I supposed I would see, there were state cots and folding chairs, a business-like chart was at the foot of the cot, and nurses were constantly in attendance, and if I had not recognized certain ministers’ daughters, lawyers’ wives, etc., of town, I should have thought they were professional nurses, so efficient were they.

In the room in which I was there were five girls; across the hall was a room containing the same number of boys. As we were not seriously ill or in immediate danger of pneumonia, we were kept in the house all the time with the windows open to allow plenty of fresh air to come in, but the pneumonia patients were taken at once to the tents, where they were given special treatment out in the open.

On the floor below was the woman’s ward on one side of the house, the men’s ward on the other side of the hall. It did not take long to guess who was on the lower floor, for everyone in a while there would be a lusty squall issue from the depths. Yes, this was where the babies were, and the children, divided according to age.

But to resume about the treatment. Several times during the day the nurse would come with camphorated oil* and give you a rub, which was perfect bliss, for there was an ache in every part of your body, and how good this did make you feel! Another phase of the treatment was not so pleasant when the nurses appeared with iodine and a medicine dropped and dropped it in your nostrils. Have you ever tasted iodine? If you haven’t you will have no conception of the terrible sensation I had when it trickled down by throat, but it did the work, so why complain?

Now, I’ll tell you something about the food and the meals. Until the fever abated we were given little else than orange juice, ice water, and a little broth; but when the temperature went down we had many other things.

Breakfast was served early in the morning. It consisted of a soft-boiled egg, milk and toast, or cocoa and toast.

Dinner at one was a little more elaborate; there was broth, crackers, bread and jelly, cornstarch, gelatin, and frequently ice cream.

For supper, we had broth, cocoa, and various other things.

Each morning, someone came around and scrubbed the floors; each patient was washed and the hair combed; the bed clothing was changed and then we felt all sweet and clean for another day. The day nurses remained on duty until 7 o’clock in the evening, then they were replaced by “Sisters” who remained on the floor until the next morning. During the day and night, there was always someone at your beck and call to respond to any calls for help, and bring a drink of water, or a refilled ice cap. The orderlies were always on duty, and would be ready to render assistance to the nurses at any time.

One of the most interesting features of the whole time, was to see Mrs. B— who takes in washing for a living and Mrs. M— who was one of the most exclusive society women, hobnobbing together and discussing the merits of this broth or whether Johnnie so and so was improving or not. And, see ministers, their wives, and daughters, women of the high officials of the city, etc. scrubbing floors, running to get a drink of water, cooking in the kitchen, washing the linen and dusting and in fact doing every kind of menial task, was an astonishment. We may paraphrase an old saying and remark “One touch of ‘Flu’ makes the whole world kin.”

Can you imagine a woman who has never had to soil her pretty hands, being assigned to the task of seeing whether she could possibly wash, scrape, or in any other way get rid of the dirt, which seemed to be about an inch thick on some of the patients who were brought in? And we doubt whether even their own mother would have recognized them after the nurse was through. Of course, this was the exception rather than the rule, but we are all well aware of the fact that some of our foreign citizens are not particular devotees to soap and water.

There were many sad incidents, too. How the heart ached when we heard stories of mother, and father dying and leaving several children at the mercy of the public; and of a mother who was constantly asking for her child which had died the day before. Almost every hour of the day, you could hear some relatives inquiring about loved ones and hear the answer that they had passed away. Some of the persons who have been judged as the most heartless were the most tender, when it came to assuaging the grief of the bereaved ones. No one will ever know the good results that have grown out of this fearful epidemic.

Another experience of the hospital, which is bound to effect even the person of the strongest nerves, is that of witnessing death and seeing the body taken from the room. When you realize that you might have been the one lying there so cold and still, you have a feeling of horror. What a little thing a life is after all, and how quickly it is gone.

But, one day, you hear the welcome news that you are well enough to go home. The sun never seemed to have shone so brightly, and although you heave a sigh when you think of leaving your newly acquired acquaintances, after all there’s no place like home. You might like to know that I walked home, and how glad I was to have recovered my powers of locomotion.

So, with this brief summary of the “Flu” experience of one who has experienced it first hand, I hope you will have a better idea of the situation. The epidemic has had its dark and its bright side; and will serve as one of the greatest factors in breaking down the barriers between all classes of people, binding them closer together.

The writer had been treated in the Milliken Hospital, a mansion atop Greenwood Hill in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Schuylkill County had been brutally ravaged by Spanish flu, with hundreds perishing in towns such as Pottsville, Minersville, Schuylkill Haven, and Tower City, and deaths being recorded in every mining village and patch town in between.

Recently, a road construction project in Schuylkill Haven unearthed a mass grave that dates to the epidemic’s peak in October 1918.

This account from a survivor of the Spanish Flu speaks the horrors those living through the pandemic experienced and should be a warning for those of us living in the 21st century. A global pandemic on the order of that experienced in 1918-1919 will happen again, it’s only a matter of time.

Featured Image: A U.S. Army hospital treating influenza patients in 1918. (National Geographic) 

*Camphor is used as an ingredient in Vicks VapoRub today.

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5 thoughts on “A patient’s haunting experience in a Coal Region influenza hospital in 1918

  1. This blog is so interesting! Question. You write that this round of influenza was the “deadliest strain of disease in human history” and that it killed “50 million people” worldwide. Granted, this is a huge number. But didn’t the plague in certain go rounds kill even more? (I seem to recall the phrase “half of Europe,” though of course maybe the whole population was considerably smaller then, and/or this more than one round of plague combined.)


    1. Great points and you nailed it. Deadliest in that it killed the most people of any epidemic in history. The Black Death killed more of a percentage of the population, but not as many people overall.


  2. The H1N1 pandemic has already circled the earth in 2009, so though it may be a matter of time, I think it is most likely a ways away.


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