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Remembering a killer, Survivors recall 1918 influenza epidemic

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  • Remembering a killer, Survivors recall 1918 influenza epidemic

    Remembering a killer
    Survivors recall 1918 influenza epidemic
    By Nicole Paseka Journal staff writer

    When the 1918 influenza epidemic raged through Canton, Ohio, Grace Stormer's older brother walked up and down the streets and asked people to pray for their parents.

    Stormer, who was 3 years old at the time, was too ill to walk with him. She suffered from what the doctors of 1918 called "double pneumonia."

    The towheaded toddler survived the 1918 influenza epidemic. Her parents did not.

    "(Mother) died first, and they didn't tell him," said Stormer, now of Sioux City. "He died a couple hours later."

    Although the 1918 influenza epidemic swept around the world nearly a century ago, researchers of today are studying this particular virus in hopes of preventing a similar disaster.

    An article released in February by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, concluded that studies of the 1918 influenza pandemic have so far raised more questions than they answer.

    Research efforts have increased in recent years as the H5N1 "bird flu" viruses spread from Asia to the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

    Anyone who knows anything about the 1918 influenza pandemic has the same question: Could it happen again?

    The 1918 flu pandemic was the single most deadly event in recorded history. It killed 50 to 100 million people around the globe, according to the National Institutes of Health.

    "If such a plague came today, killing a similar fraction of the U.S. population, 1.5 million Americans would die, which is more than the number felled in a single year by heart disease, cancers, strokes, chronic pulmonary disease, AIDS and Alzheimer's Disease combined," wrote Gina Kolata in "Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It."

    The 1918 influenza is often called the "forgotten pandemic." Seemingly everyone lost someone they loved. Many people could not speak of it. Families were destroyed. Memories were too painful.

    Stormer, now 91, lives at the Northern Hills Retirement Community in Sioux City. She owns several large scrapbooks packed full of family photographs and her delicate handwriting.

    "This is where my life changes," she wrote near a photograph of herself as a toddler in the arms of a nurse.

    Perhaps the people who lived through the epidemic know more about it than any scientist.

    Stormer's mother, Alvina Brenneman, died at the age of 35 late on March 18, 1918. Stormer's father, Christian Brenneman, died at the age of 39 in the early morning hours of March 19, 1918.

    After Stormer regained her strength, a nurse took the little orphan to live with her aunt and uncle in Washington, Ill.

    The three Brenneman children -- Stormer, her older brother, Clarence, and older sister, Gladys -- were all split up and taken in by different relatives.

    "I had a good home," Stormer said. "I was the lucky one."

    The story of the Brenneman family corresponds with one of the pandemic's greatest mysteries: Why did it often kill healthy young adults, while sparing the children and the middle-aged? And why was this particular flu so deadly?

    Death by drowning

    The 1918 influenza strain was different from a common flu of today, where a miserable sufferer might down a few shots of NyQuil, cuddle up in bed, and return to work in three or four days.

    No one is sure why the 1918 influenza was so deadly.

    Part of the reason might be due to two complications that often accompanied the 1918 influenza, said Dr. David Morens of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

    "Nowadays, complications are not that common, but in 1918, there was a high rate of complications," Morens said.

    Many influenza sufferers in 1918 developed bronchopneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome.

    "The lungs filled up with water, and people essentially drowned," Morens said.

    Violetta Bollmeyer, 97, of Sioux City, lived on a farm near Danbury, Iowa, when the pandemic struck and infected her family.

    "If one got it, everybody got it," she said.

    She remembers neighbors by the name of Bumsted dying, although her own family was spared.

    Bollmeyer also recalled flu sufferers covering their chests with goose grease, then placing a sock on top. She compared it to Vicks VapoRub of today.

    "It loosened your cough," said Bollmeyer, who now lives at the Holy Spirit Retirement Home in Sioux City.

    Bollmeyer said the best medicine of the time was whiskey -- given to the children with sugar.

    The 1918 influenza was so unlike any other flu strain ever described that patients were sometimes misdiagnosed with other maladies.

    Anne Kelly, now 89, of Sioux City, was just 18 months old when her father, Thomas F. Kelly, a prominent Sioux City businessman, died of influenza.

    "My father was bed-ridden for a week," Kelly recalled. Although her father died on Nov. 21, 1918, the epidemic spared his wife, Marie, and their four young daughters.

    Kelly still has two yellowed copies of her father's obituary, which states that Thomas F. Kelly died of "progressive pernicious anaemia."

    "It was the flu," Kelly said, shaking her head.

    Killing young adults

    Unlike other influenza strains that typically go after the elderly and the children, the 1918 flu loved to target healthy adults.

    Kenneth Brown, now 100, of Sioux City, was about 12 years old when both of his parents became deathly ill with influenza in the fall.

    At the time, the family lived on a farm between Schaller, Iowa, and Galva, Iowa.

    "They were sick in bed, and the hired men were sick," said Brown, who never suffered from the flu himself.

    Young Brown cared for his parents alone until an aunt showed up. The boy then took over the fall harvest, starting the elevator engine and unloading corn.

    His parents survived, but Brown knows not everyone was that lucky.

    "It was very serious. A lot of people had it. A lot of people died," Brown remembered.

    According to Kolata, the death curves of the 1918 influenza were "W-shaped," with peaks for the babies and toddlers younger than age 5, the elderly who were aged 70 to 74, and people aged 20 to 40.

    This property of the virus may explain why Brown never became ill, but his parents were so sick they could not care for themselves.

    Morens and his colleague at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, wrote about this aspect of the influenza in their report, which was released in February.

    Fauci has a theory about why this flu tended to take its greatest toll on adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

    One possible explanation, supported by recent studies in mice with a reconstructed version of the 1918 virus, is that an over-responsive immune system may release a "cytokine storm," or excessive amount of immune system proteins that trigger inflammation and harm the patients in the process.

    Morens has his doubts about this theory, noting that a 15-year-old would have an immune system very similar to a 25-year-old. Yet, the flu killed 25-year-olds and usually spared 15-year-olds.

    "It's a huge mystery," Morens said.

    Home remedies

    Virginia Pruehs, now 88, was born 2 months prematurely because her mother, Irene Smith, was sick with influenza in December of 1918.

    She weighed only 3 pounds at birth.

    "The doctor said, 'Just wrap her up. She won't last long,'" Pruehs remembers family members telling her.

    Baby Virginia was wrapped up and placed in a shoe box, then sat on an open oven door -- a homemade incubator.

    Against all odds, she and her mother, who lived near Allen, Neb., at the time, both survived the epidemic.

    Pruehs, who now resides at Countryside Senior Living in Sioux City, attributes her survival to "lots of loving care."

    In 1918, there was no NyQuil. Oxygen was rare. The sick were forced to use home remedies to combat the flu. Some were practical. Others now seem outrageous.

    Ruth Headley, 82, was not born yet during the flu pandemic, but family members told stories of her great-aunt, Dr. Martha Vull. Vull used Cayenne (red) pepper to treat and prevent the flu in Lexington, Ill.

    "During the flu, when everyone was dying, she only lost two patients," said Headley, who lives at Countryside Senior Living in Sioux City. "They were babies who could not take red pepper. You have to take it with lots of water."

    George Rowe's parents had a more practical approach.

    George, now 92, was about 3 years old and living on a farm near Hampton, Iowa, when the flu raged through the United States in 1918.

    He and his older brother, John Rowe, who was about 5 years old, were put in their beds for two days and two nights.

    "We thought that was pretty strange," said Rowe, now of Sioux City. "We were just laying there and wondering."

    The Rowes' self-imposed quarantine worked. No one in the family caught the flu.

    Ann Yorkus, 93, of Sioux City, said her mother had the perfect solution for keeping her family healthy: hot tea with honey.

    Her mother made everyone in the family drink hot tea with honey, and no one caught the flu.

    Whether it was luck, faith or red peppers, many people survived the flu of 1918. But for others, nothing could help.

    Still a mystery

    Leota Russell, now 88, was 6 months old and living near Odebolt, Iowa, when the flu sickened her family.

    The influenza epidemic killed her mother, Elvie Gapp, as well as her older brother, Deone Gapp.

    "They didn't have anything to cure it like they do now -- no antibiotics," Russell said.

    Russell lived with her maternal grandmother until her father remarried.

    Like so many others whose lives were altered because of the influenza epidemic, Russell wants to know why her mother and brother died.

    Morens and Fauci proposed that the excess deaths that occurred during the 1918 flu pandemic resulted from a disease process that began with a severe acute viral infection that spread down the respiratory tree, causing severe tissue damage, which was often followed by a secondary bacterial infection.

    They do not know if most of the victims actually died from the virus or from a secondary bacterial infection.

    That is just one of the mysteries lingering.

    The flu appears to be avian in origin, but the host source of the virus has never been identified.

    The 1918 influenza could have been so very deadly because it jumped directly from birds to humans -- something that has never been documented. Usually, there is a host between birds and humans.

    With similar avian viruses breaking out among wild birds and domestic poultry populations in dozens of countries around the world, studying the 1918 flu is more important the ever.

    If a pandemic with similar characteristics were to occur in the future, Morens and Fauci predicted that the number of relative deaths would be substantially lower than in 1918.

    "Almost all 'then-versus now' comparisons in theory are encouraging," they wrote in their report. "In 2007 public health is much more advanced, with better prevention knowledge, good influenza surveillance, more trained personnel at all levels, well-established prevention programs featuring annual vaccination with up-to-date influenza and pneumococcal vaccines and a national and international prevention infrastructure."

    Read Comments >
    Linda Pruehs Pratt wrote on March 18, 2007 9:23 PM:"Virginia Pruehs, one of the 1918 flu survivors you wrote about, is my mother. The story of her premature birth and subsequent survival has always been legendary in our family. I treasure the tiny flannel bonnet that was hand-sewn for her by her beloved aunts the night she was born. It was a snowy night in December, and the doctor had to ride a horse to get to my grandparent's home. The little bonnet is now framed, with a brass plaque engraved with the doctor's prediction...."Just wrap her up. She won't last long." Thank you so much for telling Mother's story, and the fascinating stories of the other survivors. Linda Pruehs Pratt"

  • #2
    Re: Remembering a killer, Survivors recall 1918 influenza epidemic

    More memories here