NORTH OGDEN — From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, regular comparisons have been made between the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak and the situation Americans find themselves in today.
One Northern Utahn has come across a firsthand account of what it was like to be a nurse during those uncertain days in the early part of the 18th century.
Kirk Allred, a North Ogden resident and longtime Weber County area orthodontist, recently unearthed an interview of his maternal grandmother, Katherine Demik Eckenbrecht, who was working as a freshly minted nurse at the old Thomas Dee Memorial Hospital during the height of the Spanish flu pandemic.
The interview was conducted May 2, 1976, in Ogden by Eckenbrecht’s son, Henry, who served as a longtime Ogden School District history teacher. Eckenbrecht was 79 years old when she was interviewed.
Allred says he found the interview in a box that had once been stored away in his father’s house. He said the interview was never published and essentially was intended to serve as a piece of history inside of the family.
At the time Eckenbrecht recalled her experience with the 1918 pandemic, there was talk of another outbreak.
According to the World Health Organization, a late winter outbreak of swine flu at a U.S. military base in 1976 led to fears of a devastating pandemic. President Gerald Ford announced a plan to vaccinate everyone in the country and by the end of the year, 40 million out of some 200 million Americans had been vaccinated for the new strain, but no pandemic ever materialized.
“The present talk about the possibility of another flu epidemic makes me reflect as to what happened during (1918),” Eckenbrecht says in the interview. “Which was a real severe tragedy at the time.”
Eckenbrecht said the Dee Memorial Hospital was filled to capacity during the 1918 pandemic. The Union Pacific Railroad, which was Ogden’s biggest economic engine at the time, got hit hard, she said, with groups of “25 to 50 men” all coming to the hospital at one time. She said essentially all parts of the hospital, even spaces traditionally used for nonmedical purposes, had to be utilized. When hospital beds ran scarce, mattresses were brought in and placed on the floors.
“We had patients in the hall beds and four or five patients in one room, sometimes three or four members of the same family, and they were so sick,” she said. “They would be completely unaware of what was happening to the others. One might pass away. We would have to wheel the patient out and others would not be aware of it. That was terrible to watch.”
Only 21 at the time of the pandemic, Eckenbrecht said she remembered the sickest among her patients would bleed severely from the nose and mouth and oftentimes become delirious. She said many patients also developed severe lung infections and pneumonia. She said antibiotics to treat infection weren’t available and hospital staff had to get creative to provide relief.
“The main medicine that was given, I presume for coughing, ... was half whiskey and half glycerine,” she said.
Eckenbrecht said doctors and nurses were equipped with gowns and masks but had little else of anything resembling personal protective equipment. She recalled fondly the heroism of several doctors and her team of nurses at the hospital and said the medical staff would work to lift each other up during the heartbreaking scenes that would regularly unfold in front of them.
“The nurses needed a pat on the back and some encouragement because of the sad situation that was around them,” Eckenbrecht said.
Eckenbrecht also said she remembered clearly the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, when the armistice to end World War I was signed. The bloody conflict and the pandemic compounded each other. According to information from the Utah departments of Veterans and Military Affairs and Heritage and Arts, 21,000 Utahns served during the war and 665 died.
“You can imagine how happy we were to think that at least the war was over with,” Eckenbrecht said.
Allred said discovering his grandmother’s account of the 1918 pandemic, gruesome as it may be, actually brought him a certain level of solace amid the current COVID-19 ordeal.
“It’s hard to believe they went through that pandemic at the same time they were fighting this big war,” he said. “It makes you realize that things could be worse and that we will get through this.”