Harmon’s Histories: UM student recorded heartbreaking experiences as nurse during 1918 flu pandemic

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

The call went out last week for nurses needed by the Missoula City-County Health Department to care for our community during the COVID-19 crisis.

Similar calls went out during the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak, this country’s last great pandemic.

One University of Montana journalism co-ed volunteered as a nurse that fall, after classes were canceled and the campus was shut down.

In the spring of 1919, she wrote about her experiences in the student newspaper, the Montana Kaimin.

Here is her verbatim story:

Rough, unfinished walls, uncovered pipes and dusty cobwebs hanging in darkened corners proclaimed it a basement. Rows of snowy beds, shaded lights and white-capped nurses proclaimed it a hospital ward. 

The Fort ambulance had made its last trip and the last soldier had been made as comfortable as a “flu” patient can be. There were a few there who had not been wearing the uniform. 

Over in the comer was a boy who had been brought 50 miles from a cattle ranch. There were two older men from a lumber camp, and several of no particular age or position who were there because the “flu” had happened to get them in Missoula and not at some other point of their wanderings.

Very few of them had ever been sick before; fewer still had ever been inside a hospital. But they were brave; they tried not to groan and grumble.

And there were a number who were beyond knowing what they did. One boy discussed his “loot” in terms not very complimentary. Later in the evening, he lost his whole month’s pay in a single game. He swore. And between outbursts he prayed. No one laughed. They knew the fever.

A nurse hovered near the boy in the corner. Only a miracle could pull him through the night. Early in the evening he was possessed with the idea that he had to get up and “fry pancakes for supper.” 

And once, when the nurse had slipped away to other duties he jumped up. The strain of that exercise was too much for him and the wee small hours found the little chap in the corner no longer there. 

Those around him could not sleep, but they did not grumble. Ice bags and all comforts were readily sacrificed in order that he might be made comfortable.

The fifth bed in the same row was occupied by “Bill.” “Bill” was just a boy, too, and he was the least sick of anyone in the ward, but he made more noise than all the rest put together. His favorite expression was ‘‘o-oh, dear,” drawn out in a long groan.

A sense of humor lived still, and some one mimicked “po-oor dear,” in much the same tone. This brought a laugh or at least a grim smile from most of the ward at midnight when life and death were struggling so mightily.

One delirious soldier struck at his nurse for trying to kill him with nasty medicine. His neighbor rose up with chivalrous indignation and the nurse assisted him back safely into his bed, where he immediately fell asleep from the exertion, promising to “fix the scoundrel when he had more time.”

The monotony of long sleepless nights was broken by the usual rounds of temperatures, medicine and nourishment.

Sometimes the sleepless ones begged until the nurse gave them that soothing sleep-bringing “shot.” Sometimes the white screens were brought in and placed around some bed, and the nurse would hold the fluttering pulse and count the minutes until it fluttered no longer.

Emptied beds were filled almost as soon as they could be prepared. Doctors came and went tightly masked. They would look at their patients and shake their heads—they were helpless.

Everyone, wondered where it would end.

New victims came in, convalescents left, glad to bid farewell to that improvised basement ward.

One evening, late, a patient was carried in who seemed to be suffering from a combination of delirium tremens and flu. On top of it all, he was exhibiting a freshly blackened eye. It was the beginning of a wild night for the nurses. 

The patient first showed a tendency to ascend the electric light cord. The fact that it pulled out

from the ceiling was the only thing that prevented him from accomplishing this feat.

The nurse is not the least of the sufferers by far, in those strenuous “flu” times. She must smile and not let convalescing “Bill” know that she has just guided a shaking hand that is signing a final will and testament.

She must accept his commands for an A-Number-1 oyster stew, double portion, from a downtown restaurant, and calmly order a half portion when out of earshot.

She must learn to lie just a little when nervous No. 7 asks his temperature. But no matter how hard or trying their work, they all say they prefer to take care of the “flu” rather than to have it.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.