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Egads! Thoughts on Epidemics and Flu

Water cooler and dinner table talk around the country right now centers on this year’s pervasive flu season. Word has it our local hospitals are full of flu and bronchitis cases. Headlines are made with this week’s mortality figures. We are rightly concerned. I am usually running neck and neck with the healthy as a horse cliché but I too succumbed to bronchitis this week.  So in between coughing fits and endless mugs of tea I’ve been thinking about past flu epidemics, measles and polio outbreaks and how we’ve handled them as individuals, families and communities.


I find walking through cemeteries intriguing–disease outbreaks are memorialized in stone in the frequency and proximity of death dates. You may find this gruesome; I view it with a sense of historical curiosity and a great compassion for these human lives that walked this rock before me. Each of these people were fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. They each left memories in those whose lives they touched and made an impact on their world.



Describes the nature of pandemics.


Describes the courage and resilience of the human experience when faced with these world changing pandemics and outbreaks.


Pandemics are of such historical importance that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)  created a project called the  Pandemic Influenza Storybook.

“The CDC’s Pandemic Flu Storybook provides readers with a look at the impact pandemic flu events have had on both survivors and the families and friends of non-survivors. These stories are not folklore, but personal recollections. This collection of stories was first released in 2008 to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1918 flu pandemic.”

You can read Sadie’s true story , here’s an excerpt:

This is the story of the 1918 flu pandemic as told by my 97–year–old grandmother, Sadie Afraid of His Horses–Janis.

In her desperation, my great–grandmother, Nancy, had applied the principals of quarantine, prevented cross–contamination, provided hydration and inhalation therapy, and used pharmacology to save her family. To this day, my grandmother Sadie has a medicine bag with flat cedar, sweet grass, bitter–root, and green tea. However, she says she′ll pass on the kerosene and sugar.

Olivia Huggins’ father was a newborn when the flu hit his family:

My dad, Manual Pacheco, was born on July 10, 1918 to Juan de Jesus and Amelia Pacheco in Rainsville, New Mexico. He was their sixth child. When Manual was only 2 months old, his mother, Amelia became ill with the flu. Because she was so sick, she was unable to produce breast milk for Manual. Therefore, Juan fed the baby coffee with sugar added to it until he was able to purchase a goat. The goat’s milk sustained Manual and he survived, and so did his mother. No one else in the family became ill.

I can’t help but wonder if Juan had a terrible time getting that little boy to sleep after dosing him with coffee. However, it was a resourceful solution till the goat showed up.


Here’s another one from the CDC’s website, this one taking place in Wyoming and told by Margarita Pancake:

My father, Elmer “Bud” Pancake, grew up around Lusk, Wyoming. During the great flu pandemic of 1918, there was a county doctor who boasted that he had never lost a patient. His secret weapon was “rotgut” whiskey. He would pour the whiskey into a patient to get them to cough up the phlegm. During the pandemic, he ran out of whiskey and there was none to be had in the community. The only whiskey in Lusk was locked–up in the sheriff′s office as evidence for a bootlegger′s trial. The sheriff refused to release the liquor. So, the doctor got a few prominent citizens together for a kind of vigilante committee that promptly seized the whiskey, depriving the sheriff of his evidence.


1957 brought another flu pandemic, not as bad as the 1918 one, which took 20-50 million lives worldwide, but still a natural force to be dealt with. According to the CDC 70,000 people died in the 1957 flu

An excerpt from storyteller Jack D. Bell, who experienced the flu in Washington in 1958 as a kid:

And, I simply was too uncomfortable to sleep! At one point, I kept asking my poor momma if I was going to die and I told her if this kept up much longer that I didn’t care if I died! I can remember my parents discussing whether they should send me to the hospital, but our family doctor (who actually came to our house; remember when doctors did that?!) told us that my fever would break any time, and I would feel much better. He was right, on the third day I stopped vomiting and got a few hours of sleep. When I woke up, my wonderful mom fed me some chicken soup—my favorite, and I kept it down. I missed about a week of school, which I didn’t mind.



Although some medical treatments have changed, much of the deceptively simple homing nursing care remains the same and goes a long ways towards helping folks recover. Most of us have experienced having  the flu run through the entire household and it can truly be said to be a family bonding experience. I bet you still talk about it.

Photo–1918, France — Patients lie in Influenza Ward No. 1 in U.S. Army Camp Hospital No. 45 in Aix-les-Baines, France,during World War I. | Location: Aix-les-Baines, France. — Image by © CORBIS


Below are links to a couple fascinating books about the great flu epidemic of 1918 if you’d like to read more. May we learn and be inspired.

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World





The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History Revised Edition


An excerpt from the editorial description:

“At the height of WWI, history’s most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide…1918 marked the first collision of science and epidemic disease. Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research and now revised to reflect the growing danger of the avian flu, The Great Influenza is ultimately a tale of triumph amid tragedy, which provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon.“


Many of us have parents or grandparents or friends who can remember flu, measles or polio scares. Talk to them and ask how it impacted their lives, school, community.

Now, I’m going to get yet another cup of tea. May you stay healthy and well this flu season,