The Spanish flu and a rescuing angel

As a kid I thrilled to my dad’s story of a childhood brush with death during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. He wrote up and published the story as part of his 1984 memoir Musings on Medicine.

My father as a boy at R, beside his elder sister Marion, with their father Gordon, Senior at L. Likely taken in Saskatchewan.

My father Gordon Hunter Grant (1905-1987) was born in Owen Sound, Ontario, the third child of Ellen Ann McInnes and Gordon Cummings Grant. When Dad was little, the family migrated to Saskatchewan and took up farming, first in the Saskatoon area, and after 1911, outside Limerick.

Limerick, centred and pinned on this Google Earth map of south central Saskatchewan, is 150 kilometres southwest of Regina, top R.

Fortune was not kind to them. Their eldest child, who would have been my Uncle Norman, was trampled to death by a runaway team of horses in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He was just twelve years old. The Grants had two more children; both died very young. I had the impression that the third death in the family, in July 1916, was seared into Dad’s soul:

    Morley, six years younger than I, was a victim of rheumatic fever, one of the great scourges of pre-antibiotic days. He was doomed from the start; his heart was hit by what I later came to know as pancarditis, meaning that the valves and the heart musculature were both hopelessly infected by the streptococcus.

    Doctor Gordon Ross, the physician who attended Morley, was unable to help the little boy; but the night before his little patient died, he sat in an arm chair close to the bed, comforting my parents the only way left to him, by his presence alone consoling the grief-stricken couple.

Dad said that he decided to become a doctor then. He was ten years old. His narrative embraces some happy times in Saskatchewan — he virtually grew up in the saddle. But the family decided to cut their losses and return to Ontario. Then a spell of terribly unseasonable weather paved the way for the fearsome second wave of Spanish Influenza that was rolling across Canada and through the world while the brutal climax of the Great War unfolded in Flanders and Germany.

    Our departure was delayed by the outbreak of the great influenza epidemic in the late autumn of 1918. That epidemic swept the prairie with the fury of the Black Death and my parents and I came very close to being numbered among its victims.

    Limerick was decimated. The only doctor was among the first to die; the only undertaker, who ran a furniture store, soon followed him to the little cemetery a mile or so out of the village. To add to the catastrophic situation, it was the worst winter of the century. Two feet of snow fell on my birthday, September 23, and high drifts of that snow were still there on the first of the following May. Automobiles were completely useless and huge Clydesdale horses could get around only because they could walk, steel-shod, on the drifts, leaving hardly a trace.

    Village and country people soon divided into two classes: those who had not caught the disease and stayed isolated at home to keep things that way, and those like my parents who worked from before dawn to well after dark to do what they could for their farm neighbours.

The family’s latest tribulation was shared by thousands across the Prairies who lived isolated on farms. Dad’s description of the extremities of the illness matches those of countless others. He and his family were nursed past the point of danger by a girl who in his oral account was a prostitute. Her care made all the difference.

    The week before Armistice Day, November 11, my parents came home, white, unsteady on their feet and barely able to speak. My father whispered to me to stable and feed the team. When I came back to the house they had managed to crawl to bed and could only shake their heads when I carried up my usual cuisine which consisted of fried eggs and mashed potatoes.

    For four days I fought it out, apparently unscathed, but on the morning of the fifth day I could barely creep downstairs. I had to let the stock go unfed and managed only to crank the rural telephone and croak out our plight to the only “Central” who was minding the switchboard beside her bed. It was well below zero outdoors. I barely managed to stoke the two stoves before I crawled upstairs to bed.

    Our lives were saved by an eighteen year old girl to whom my mother had been kind when she badly needed kindness. She arrived about noon, riding a farm horse. After stoking the dying fires, she fed the stock and settled down to her around-the-clock vigil of mercy, one she had carried out in many a stricken household. My parents were slowly gaining on their illnesses. About six days after the onset of mine, the girl reluctantly had to get them up, one at a time, to say their goodbyes to me. I barely recall her early presence. I was in either coma or in delirium through the week. I obviously had a classic case of the deadly lobar pneumonia that killed so many people in the epidemic.

    I woke the morning after my parents had been to my bedside. I was drenched with sweat and able to swallow a little milk under the girl’s urging. My incredulous parents apparently gained rapidly after that, but I was a long time getting on my feet.

Dad was able to track the fortunes and fate of their caregiver:

    Our rescuing angel astonishingly survived the epidemic without even a minor case of the flu, although she seems to have gone some six weeks with almost no sleep and working at a pace well calculated to kill by itself. She married a young Norwegian farmer whose wife had died. She bore him twin sons; they were killed in the same bombing raid over the Seine in late 1944. She died in 1946 of cancer, having barely reached middle age.

Dad went on to attend the Owen Sound Collegiate Institute and study medicine at the University of Toronto; he graduated M.D. in the class of 1929.

Dad in navy uniform, so probably 1939-45. Possibly taken by my mum, Virginia.

His own young family moved to Victoria after the Second World War, settled in Oak Bay and in 1948 added little me.

Dad became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (F.R.C.S.) that same year, I think. One of the longest chapters in his book concerns his training in surgery of the hand with Dr Stirling Bunnell in San Francisco. Dad was Chief of Staff at Royal Jubilee Hospital  in the 1960s. He served as President of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand for two years. I used to meet people (not so much any more) who gratefully remembered his care, typically in repairing an injured or impaired hand. Power lawn mowers and rheumatoid arthritis ranked high in his Etiology.

All that surgery of repair might never have happened. I might not have happened. The Spanish Flu killed an estimated 50,000 Canadians; in all, as many as 100 million people. Dad could have been just another statistic.

In a way, Dad’s rescuing  angel was ours, too.

My book Spanish Influenza in Victoria, Canada, 1918-1920 will be published this summer; it will be dedicated to that anonymous saver of young life — and of lives unbegun.

March 2018

PS: I hear in the story of the rescuing angel echoes of the memorable graveyard scene in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. From a vastly different premise comes a similar conclusion. George Bailey (James Stewart) is granted his despairing wish by an angel-in-training named Clarence. He wishes not to have been born. Clarence shows George the world without him in a town made infinitely worse by his absence. George discovers the grave of his brother Harry. The movie began with a scene from their childhood; George had saved Harry’s life. Up to this moment, George was certain his brother had recently rescued a shipload of troops. The angel recites the sad news: “Your brother Harry Bailey broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of nine.” “That’s a lie!” George exclaims, “Harry Bailey went to war! He got the Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that transport!” Clarence: “Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save Harry.” The scene may be viewed on YouTube.

PPS: Of some folks it truly can be said that they never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Did it really snow two feet in Limerick on September 23? I’ve been going over the historical newspapers of the day, accessible via the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan. No sign of snow. Dad was a great story-teller — who’s gonna quibble over a few details?

A version of this article is posted on the website Spanish Influenza in Victoria, Canada, 1918-1920.