Paramedic’s Corner: The Captain of the Men of Death: A Story of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Part II
By: Ambulance Director Gary Carmack
Posted: Wednesday, September 23, 2009 7:21 pm
Ambulance Director Gary Carmack
It was so fast ... the death. A person could be feeling good in the morning and by late that night, be dead. Before death came the chilling horror and unbearable pain. By recorded accounts there was blood everywhere, on linens, clothes, pouring out of people’s nostrils, ears, and eyes, while others coughed it up. The cough was constant and so violent that abdominal muscles and muscles along the rib cage were torn apart. The skin would turn dark blue, so dark that early on, many people thought it was the return of the bubonic plague (Black Death). From autopsy of the lungs, physicians recorded having only seen lungs in such condition from two other causes: weapons of war, seen following inhalation of poison gas, and a dreadfully virulent form of the bubonic plague called pneumonic plague, which kills approximately 90 percent of its victims. Only these two horrible things ripped the lungs apart in the way this influenza did.
There are several estimates today of the death toll, but the statistics cannot possibly convey the terror people felt. The first significant attempt to estimate the death toll was in 1927. Today’s media frequently quote the 1927 finding of “more than 20 million.” However, studies today show many more, at least 50 million and probably 100 million, died as a result of the outbreak. There were nearly 20 million deaths on the Indian subcontinent alone. About 650,000 died in the United States. Mexico lost nearly four percent of its population; Russia lost seven percent. Huge but unknown numbers died in China. In Alaska and Africa, terrible things happened ... entire villages were wiped out, heaps of bodies were found, and then in Alaska, the starving dogs would come. As one physician, Victor Vaughn, former president of the American Medical Association stated, “If the epidemic continues ... civilization could easily disappear ... from the face of the earth within a matter of a few more weeks.”
In early September of 1918, a military installation 35 miles northwest of Boston called Camp Devens had been built for 36,000 men preparing for World War I but was overcrowded with about 50,000. A large number of soldiers were being treated for pneumonia. On Sept. 7, a soldier from D Company of the 42nd Infantry was sent to the hospital. His aches were so bad that he screamed when touched. He was first treated for meningitis. The next day, a dozen more soldiers from his company got sick. A few more days went by and then in a single day, 1,543 Camp Devens soldiers reported ill. Soon, bodies were piling up, averaging a hundred deaths per day. There were not enough coffins, and besides, no one was well enough to dig the graves.
In the next part, we'll discuss the virus. Where does it come from and could it happen again?