The Sisters of Charity on the front line of the influenza epidemicPrint
As World War I ended a new and dreadful scourge appeared – Influenza or Spanish Flu. The pandemic gradually spread throughout Europe. The Australian Government watching its approach drew up stringent quarantine regulations. By November 1918 the disease had struck in its most virulent form in New Zealand and was spreading rapidly. In the same month, a ship full of returning soldiers arrived at Freemantle with two cases on board and was quickly quarantined at Woodman’s Point. At the end of the month an old White Star liner, now the troopship The Medic arrived in Sydney with 100 cases of influenza already diagnosed amongst the passengers. It had left Australia only a few weeks before but when Armistice was signed returned to Australia stopping briefly in New Zealand, where the crew and passengers encountered influenza.
The Medic anchored off the Quarantine Station at North Head and those diagnosed with the disease were taken ashore. Within two days the number of cases had risen to 300 and a few days later seven of these had died. Among the nursing staff already on the ship was Elizabeth Kearey, who had graduated in 1908 and among the nursing sisters who responded to the call for help at the Quarantine Station were several St Vincent’s graduates: Olive Brownlow (1913) who had returned to Australia in July after eighteen months military service; Amy Richardson (1917) who, immediately on finishing her course had enlisted for military service and was based at Randwick Military Hospital and Annie Egan, a country girl from Gunnedah, who had graduated from St Vincent’s only in June. The virulence of the disease is demonstrated by the fact that most of the nurses quickly contracted the disease; Olive Brownlow recovered, as did Amy Richardson who was soon able to resume her duties at Randwick Military Hospital. However after several days’ illness Amy Egan died. There was a public outcry because as she lay ill she asked for a priest and such was the fear of contagion that the authorities refused permission, even though the priest offered to go into quarantine.
The stringent quarantine precautions proved unsuccessful and the pandemic of Spanish influenza reached Sydney in January 1919. The disease struck with amazing speed, individuals who were healthy in the morning were dead in the evening. The most vulnerable were young and healthy men, rather than the old and infirm. The disease came in waves peaking first in mid-April, followed by an even more virulent outbreak in June when over a third of the population of Sydney was affected.
Within days, the Mother Rectress, Mother M. Gertrude Healy, recognised the urgency of the situation. Wards were cleared and rearranged, and as far as possible only influenza patients were admitted. Urgent surgical cases were diverted to the Private Hospital to be treated free and non-urgent treatment postponed. As part of the government’s containment measures, places of entertainment and schools closed. The teaching Sisters, freed from their teaching duties, visited the homes of sufferers, giving first aid and offering what comfort they could.
In 1964 Sister M. Giovanni RSC recalled those terrible times:
‘The flu’s onset was sudden, producing a high temperature and incessant delirium with consequent violence, sufferers became clamorous and often almost uncontrollable. It was a new disease. There were no antibiotics or effective treatments and patients were nursed as for pneumonia — if there was time before they died. Day by day we heard of hundreds dying as the epidemic took hold.’
A never-ending stream of influenza patients was admitted to St Vincent’s, and for nearly two months the medical staff worked day and night. The senior physician Dr Charles Maher was an untiring worker, snatching a little sleep whenever he could, and his example inspired the staff. The priests giving the last sacraments became familiar figures around the hospital. No visitors were allowed and the anxiety of relatives was pitiable as they came to the doors seeking news of their loved ones.
The hospitals pharmacy prepared a vaccine from cultures made from sputum specimens obtained from patients at the Quarantine station. Many of the staff were inoculated, and vaccine supplied to doctors on the staff and in neighbouring districts. Despite this Sisters and members of the staff also contracted the disease including Sister M. Ignatius D’Arcy. A native of Killabo, County Clare Ireland she had started nursing at St Vincent’s in 1877 and for over 42 years had managed St Patrick’s Ward (the men’s medical ward), sometimes known as the ‘Sailors’ Ward’. An experienced and skilful nurse she would spend hours at the bedside of a patient who needed special care. This devotion was to claim her life. During the epidemic a poor wharf labourer dying of influenza was admitted to her ward. She nursed him devotedly until she became so ill she was no longer able to carry on her duties and was admitted to The Coast Hospital, Her condition was diagnosed as influenza and she was returned to the hospital where she died a few days later. After a service in the hospital chapel the funeral cortege left for Rookwood cemetery and as it passed the Church of the Sacred Heart the bell tolled a sorrowful farewell.
from Cooke, A., Unpublished History of Nursing at St Vincent’s Hospital. Reprinted with kind permission of the author.
Image 1: Mother Gertrude Healy; 2: St Ignatius D’Arcy