Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences
Chapter XLVI. — Influenza Epidemic
There was another very sad time in store for New Zealanders, perhaps in some ways not so tragic and drastic as the torpedoeing of the Marquette, but resulting in much more loss of life.
This was the Epidemic of Influenza, 1918, just at the time when the war was over. This world-wide sickness which swept over the sea from country to country, was not like ordinary influenza at all. I think it was a form of plague, caused by all the corruption of death on the fields of war, and the deadly germs, air-borne from place to place.
In New Zealand, Auckland had the first and the worst outbreak. In Wellington we had a terrible time! I was very busy. Dr. Valintine was at the time seconded for military duty, his second in command, Dr. Frengley, was dealing with the epidemic in Auckland. The chief clerk was very ill, the District Health Officer was ill, my assistant, Miss Bicknell, was also ill for a short time, but fortunately recovered and came to my help before the worst came. We had to organise temporary hospitals in schools, halls, and even in an old steamship which had been laid up for years. This was brought in alongside the wharf, and patients, mostly seamen, were put on board. It was very difficult with the limited number of nurses available page 227 to attend to them satisfactorily, and the ventilation, laid up as the ship was against the wharf, was not good, so after a short time the patients were transferred to the Seamen's Institute, a good hall, which made quite a nice hospital ward. Sister Wilkin, who was one of the survivors of the Marquette, I put in charge. The St. John Ambulance Nursing Guild came to the assistance of the trained nurses, and did excellent work.
People who had never done any work of the kind came forward, organised hospitals, cooked and cleaned, as well as tended the sick. A food depot was established at the Town Hall, and food was distributed from there to the many private houses where sick were being cared for. People visited from house to house, and reported fresh cases, and did what they possibly could for them.
It was a nightmare of a time; I went to stay with a kind friend in town, so as not to be troubled with cooking or house-keeping, and from early morning till late at night was busy at my office, and when possible in going round to find fresh accommodation and to find doctors, nurses, and equipment. In that last, the Defence Department came to our aid and supplied furniture, beds, bedding, crockery, and all essentials. I also, when possible, made daily visits to the hospitals to see how they were getting on and to give the nurses instruction and adjust little differences which cropped up.
As the heads of my department were not available, I had to assume control, and as the Minister said, “act Chief Health Officer,” I had to see to the closing of schools, picture theatres, etc., and of course this had to be done with legal formality, so I got in touch with the Crown Law Office.page 228
Just after all this, to my great relief, Dr. Makgill arrived from Auckland and took charge. Miss Bicknell and I could then go on with our own special duties.
At Trentham Hospital, and more so at Featherston Camp Hospital, the outbreak was very severe. Miss Willis was in charge of the latter and did splendid work there. Here we lost one of our sisters, Sister Wishaw. Many of the staff were ill, but struggled on duty again as soon as possible.
Perhaps one of the worst happenings was the outbreak on the Tahiti, a. ship taking troops to the field of war, to which I have already referred. There were six or seven nurses; Sister Maxfield, of Auckland Hospital, in charge. The troops went down like flies; seventy died and the medical officers were also ill. The nurses stuck to their jobs like Britons, and ill or not, managed to crawl on deck and attend to the dying men. All that could be were brought on deck to get some air, and as the nurses said afterwards, it was a gruesome task, treading among them in the dark, and not knowing where you would find another dead or dying.
I considered that Sister Maxfield had earned an award for the way she carried on at that dreadful time, and recommended that she be given the R.R.C., but there had been a new rule made that this should only be awarded after a term of service to which she had not attained. She was mentioned in despatches, and the work of the sisters generally commended. After arrival at Home, where the troops were sent either to camp or hospital, it was necessary to send one of the sisters to hospital, Sister Tubman, and she died shortly after.
The outbreak in New Zealand was scarcely over when we were asked by cable to send fifty nurses to Australia to page 229 help them in the epidemic there. We could not spare fifty, but I found twenty-five volunteers to go, and sent them in charge of Miss Polden. They went to Victoria and helped in a temporary hospital in the old Exhibition Hall in Melbourne.
While still in the throes of the epidemic, though it was slackening off, came the joyful news of the Armistice. The first news was premature, but on 11th November came the glad news that hostilities had ceased.