The following is part of a letter printed in The Western Australian, 11 February 1919. It was written by a patient telling exactly what it was like to have Spanish Influenza and survive. It really brings home the pain and suffering of so many in that troubling time.
I have been ill with the horrible plague, and I want to tell you what it is like.
You feel bounding with life and health, and you laugh and say, “This thing will never get me!” That is the first sign that it has got you, for one of Spanish Influenza’s awful ways is to tip you, as it were, from the highest pitch of fitness down to the depth of blackest despair. You go about doing your ordinary work and no one suspects you – you do not suspect yourself – and suddenly you feel as if the bottom of the world had fallen away, and nothing else matters so long as you can get to bed, turn with your face to the wall, and sleep. But you can’t sleep; you can’t even stumble by yourself to your bed.
When they say, “Whatever is the matter?” and you answer, “I don’t know,” then you may be sure you have it. Somehow you don’t care, for the dreadful disease eats up all your better feelings, and you only care then about yourself and your own comfort and welfare – which seems to have departed forthwith hand in hand with any terror of dying. You never think you are going to die unless you are a mild case, when you wish all the time that you could. That is a good symptom, but it mops up all sympathy for others, all good desire for the betterment of the general welfare, your responsibilities, cares, interest in work, in keeping infection from spreading even. You care for nothing at first except that you should get into bed and know how your temperature is, and what you may have to eat. Not that you can eat anything; but you want, want, want.
You want roast duck and green peas washed down with dry champagne; cold pork and salad with sparkling hock; anything, everything that is impossible. And you could not look at it if it were beside your bed. And as for bed, which you desired so mightily, it proves the last place in the world you wish to stay in when you get there. You want to get up and go – out of the room, out of the world.
It is an awful feeling, that intense desire to get away; but you cannot give way to it. You cannot move. And your temperature goes up higher and higher, and your heart races as if you had seen a ghost, and your breathing is an anomaly you become familiar with. It is a terror, but not the worst when you have Spanish Influenza. The whole of your body aches as well, elongates itself, and then springs back with a painful snap, and your head aches unmercifully, and buzzes and drums; and your throat is sore, and you are dry past desert thirst. And they say mine was a mild case! God help those who are seriously ill. Perhaps He does!
Then you always have to be moved. There is a germ about which affects other people so that they always have to move you. And the agony of being moved! It isn’t as with rheumatism, just pain; but there is pain and anguish and despair so that you think, “They are moving me now to make it easier to put me in my coffin”, and the next minute you wish it were just where they were putting you, so long as you could be at peace.
You want the tenderest handling in all of the world, the kindest words and the softest smile. And they cannot smile behind those appalling masks, at least if they can, you don’t see them. And so, at last, you are in hospital with rows and rows of others near you. You are with the tortured, and you are a mild case! Your eyes burn. If tears come, they cool them for a while, but they are worse after, and your tongue feels enormous, and your throat is like an open sepulchre.
Oh, why don’t they come and give you a drink and pull the clothes over you? You are cold, so cold, you shiver and ache and fret, but you are quite aware that you are inarticulate and lie on the bed they have put you on as silently and as still as the other forms around you – except for the cough!
When you hear all the other tortured souls coughing, coughing, you feel very cross indeed toward them for disturbing the peace so perpetually. It is so annoying when you want to sleep.
The nurse flits from bed to bed; the patients lie still and cough. I was coughing too. I found myself at it and didn’t seem to care, even if I was disturbing the others.
What did it matter! What did anything matter when your head was splitting and your mind astray down in the fields of the unblessed? The nurse bent over me. “Hello, old dear!” she exclaims cheerfully. “What a bad time you have been having. Never mind, we’ll get you well right soon. See here is a gargle and a drink, and I am making you a lovely poultice for your throat, which you will have on after you’ve been sponged.” “Are you really going to do all that?” “Why, we are going to do lots of other things too, to make you more comfortable! It’s not just me you know, but the country, and the Red Cross. You’ll be ever so much better now you are in hospital.”
Nurse leaves you to gargle, but you put down the glass, for your head feels like a drum, and each moment you wait for the sticks to bang it. So tensely you wait for these that your whole body rises higher and higher in the bed until it floats to the ceiling, and hovers, hovers. . .
“Why have you not taken your drink? You said you were thirsty. Come, drink it up and I’ll sponge you.”
“Leave me alone!” But nurse laughs. You hear a delicious sound behind the mask. She lifts your head and pours ambrosia down your parched throat, and then she nurses you.
I’m not going to say a word about the nurses; they are too wonderful for my pen to describe. It’s when they leave you that you suffer. . .
On the third day, you may feel better. Think what that means. I was feeling better and I never went up again. By “up” you allude to the thermometer, you mean your temperature, and if you don’t go “up” you don’t get complications. I could tell you about the complications, but they are not interesting to me at present. I didn’t get them, and no one – however much he may want sympathy – wants them.
I am content to be sitting up, hopelessly weak, hopelessly depressed, and I take no interest in anything in the world except the newspaper, and in nothing in that except the column marked “pneumonic influenza”.
(This is just one of the chapters in Trish Skehan’s book, “Frontline of the Pandemic: Australia 1919”, which can be purchased from the City of Canada Bay Museum. Cost is $20 [GST inclusive] and we can arrange contact-free pick-up. Phone 9744-8528.)