Despite what the government has done to healthcare, what we experience in America today is light years ahead of healthcare in the early 1900s. Consider Calvin Coolidge, Jr., the President’s son. After developing a blister on his toe while playing lawn tennis, he contracted an infection from a relatively common bacterium, Staphylococcus aureus. Within a week, the sixteen year-old was dead. Something we all take for granted today wasn’t readily available when young Calvin needed it: penicillin.
I cannot imagine what it must have been like for people whose life expectancy was 53 for men and 54 for women. Every nick, scrape, and cut had to be taken seriously, or it could lead to death. My own great-grandfather lost his life to a cut he received while working on the railroad. After blood poisoning set in, the only option was amputation. He refused to let the doctor take his leg, and the infection took his life.
Consider childbirth. Often unsanitary conditions led to a high rate of infant and mother mortality. Midwifes or female relatives or neighbors were responsible for delivering babies, especially among the poor. Having a doctor present was a luxury, and even then, life hung in the balance.
It sounds rather third-world when you read about it and not at all like America today where there’s a pill to pop for just about every illness or disease and organizations dedicated to medical research.
Before this post becomes too morbid, I’ll focus on the research I conducted for the one disease that threatened the lives of the characters in my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. It also occurred during the above-mentioned time period of the early 1900s.
Known by the nickname Spanish Flu, the 1918 flu pandemic hit the world in two waves and reached remote places such as Pacific Islands and the Arctic. Around 500 million people were infected and 50-100 million died, 3-5% of the world’s population.
The deadly H1N1 virus attacked healthy young adults by causing an overreaction of the body’s immune system. The very young, elderly, or previously sick patients actually had a better chance of surviving because their immune system was already underperforming.
It’s also no coincidence that the flu virus thrived among the soldiers fighting in World War I. They were weakened from malnourishment and stress, and troop movements helped spread the disease. Obituaries of those who succumbed to the flu piled up next to those of soldiers who lost their lives in battle.
The Great Pandemic website provides valuable information on what is still one of the most well-known natural disasters in the world today. With all of the improvements in medicine, it’s hard to fathom something like this occurring again. Yet I wonder if we’re not living in the shadow of the flu pandemic or possibly its more lethal, mutated cousin.