Nurse’s Role during the Spanish Influenza

European streets erupt with praise each evening as civilians stand on their balconies and clap for the medical professionals who labour endlessly to save patient after patient rushed through the hospital doors. We can all agree that they deserve the honour and so much more.

One of the dominant heroes of the Spanish Influenza had to be the nurses, who risked their lives to save and/ or care for the victims of the 1918/ 1919 pandemic. Unfortunately nobody lined the streets, gave them a clap of honour each evening or praised their exhausting work. These silent heroes risked their lives with each patient they saw, fighting exhaustion and defeat each day in order to keep fighting the ravaging disease.

World War One:

Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife, Countess Sophie Chotek, about to set off on their visit to Saravejo on the 28th June, 1914.

The first world war began in the June of 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb. Austria- Hungary, the Archduke’s country, then declared war on Serbia on 28th July 1914, and marked the outbreak of World War One.

In a world where most women were not even allowed to vote, thousands of nurses enlisted to work as Army Nurses in the war and play their part to support their country.

In most of the countries involved in World War One, all able- bodied men either enlisted or were drafted to fight in the war. This of course meant that most of the doctors were away from their home countries when the subsequent pandemic eventually broke out.

The Spanish Influenza:

Influenza Epidemic, Mill Valley, California, 1918 (C.Raymond)

The origins of the Spanish Influenza is unknown, but the first recorded incidence of the flu was among the American military in the spring of 1918. As soldiers from one country came into contact with soldiers from other countries and then went home to their families, it was extremely easy for the flu to be passed from person to person, and the global spread was exponential.

The first strain was quite mild, with most patients suffering the usual flu- like symptoms, and very few deaths. The second strain, however, came in the autumn of 1919, and this strain was a lot deadlier, causing the high mortality rate that history books write about.

It is estimated that over 500 million people were infected by the Spanish flu, while 20 – 50 million people were killed by it, and is known as one of the most dangerous pandemics in history.

Lack of Doctors:

A nurse tends to a patient in the influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital during Spanish Influenza

Unfortunately most of the doctors were fighting as soldiers or working as Army paramedics in the war, and were completely unable to help with Spanish Influenza patients in their home countries.

Civilians were in desperate need of doctors, and soon the responsibility of the medical care of patients fell on the nurses.

Women during the Spanish Influenza:

Health workers prepare to retrieve victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic in St. Louis

The nurses of 1918/ 1919 are not given enough credit for the work that they accomplished during the Spanish Influenza. They worked tirelessly in hospitals as well as home visits, seeing as many as forty cases in a day, consistently putting themselves in danger with each patient they saw to and cared for. As there were no antibiotics or medicines for their patients, nurses made sure the Spanish Influenza victims remained hydrated, in bed and isolated to reduce infecting others who may not have yet had the disease.

Before the Spanish Influenza, the necessity for nurses was limited and they were underappreciated, their choice of profession was looked down upon and they were not seen as very important. However, by the end of the Spanish influenza, nurses had been on the forefront of the pandemic and people began looking upon them as an invaluable asset to society. They were seen as a necessary part of life and extremely important to the field of health care.

Because of these tenacious and courageous women from one hundred years ago, the nurses of today are celebrated and clapped for alongside all other medical professionals because of their hard work and endless dedication to saving lives and caring for who ever walks through their hospital doors.

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