She died on her eighth birthday, and we looked for her gravesite just shy of a century later.
Green grass, lush trees and gray tombstones fill the landscape at Greenmount Cemetery. We had no luck finding her name on a marker even when I returned to the main office for better directions. A few minutes later, Bob Talamante with Durango Parks and Recreation Department drove up in a mini work cart.
“You’ll never find her headstone,” he said as I approached. He held up a rolled map of the cemetery embellished with handwritten notes. “She doesn’t have one.” He unrolled the map and pointed, “But I can show you where she’s buried.”
We took a few steps up a gentle slope dotted with headstones of every imaginable age, shape, size and texture. He stopped before reaching a stand of oversized junipers and gestured to the ground. A shallow depression marked her grave.
Loisa Bass was identified in the Oct. 8, 1918, Durango Evening Herald as the first local victim to die of the flu pandemic. Hers was not the first case of flu that month, and she may not have been the flu’s first local victim because of the way it was variously reported. But the little girl died on her birthday 100 years ago, and I was disappointed there was no tombstone with her name and the relevant dates etched in stone.
Loisa was only one of the 50 million to 100 million people worldwide killed by the flu that year. Because of the rapidly spreading illness, church services were legally restricted when she died. According to the article, a local minister provided graveside services for the family.
Annual illness turns deadlyInfluenza was an annual epidemic in much of the world. Durango was no exception, where seasonal flu was frequently called la grippe (noun derivative of “to grasp” and commonly shortened to “the grip”). It normally killed the weakest members of a community – small children, the elderly and the debilitated. But this version of the flu was not so discriminating.
The influenza epidemic that swept through the world in 1918-19 came in three phases. The first phase started uncharacteristically in the spring and was pretty mild.
The second wave, which started in October, was deadlier. It began with the typical flu symptoms – chills, fever and body aches. But it could take one of two deadly paths. It could kill rapidly with victims coughing up blood, developing purplish blisters and black limbs from oxygen-starved skin. The other lethal form developed after a prolonged illness that ended in pneumonia.
This was in an age before antibiotics. Not everyone died, and mortality was at about 2.5 percent of those afflicted. This compares with a mortality of 0.1 percent for normal seasonal influenza.
The pandemic (meaning worldwide) was the largest demographic disaster ever known. World War I was called The Great War (until there was a second world war). Meaning no disrespect to those who fought and died, a better descriptor for the period might be The Great Influenza.
A widespread killerEarly death estimates from the 1918-19 flu were low. Isolated and medically underserved areas, including some American communities, underreported the disease for a variety of reasons.
Often, the cause of death was listed as pneumonia with no mention of the flu. Current death estimates for the pandemic are at least 50 million people, and some think it could be twice that. More people died as a consequence of influenza than from war.
It certainly caused as much human suffering. In La Plata County, there were more than 200 deaths from an approximate population of 11,000. Think of it. If there were 200 deaths in our current population of more than 55,000, it would be catastrophic.
There were 675,000 deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to American Legion data, 53 percent of our military deaths in World War I were from flu-related causes.
Like much of the world, Durango-area residents in 1918 were fighting a battle on two fronts, and we were doing worse at home. The flu seemed to run its course early when we celebrated Armistice Day on Nov. 11.
Public celebrations of the war’s end caused a resurgence in the illness, and it continued locally through December. As death numbers dwindled, most isolation/quarantine restrictions were lifted. The schools were reopened, and teachers were with their students for the first time in three months.
‘Nobody in the streets’Because so many nurses and physicians served in the military, the civilian health care system was seriously depleted. Red Cross volunteers helped fill the need, and when public gatherings were prohibited and the schools were closed, teachers joined the battle.
Bessie Finnegan was a nurse in Durango when the flu struck. In a 1976 interview with Fort Lewis College professor Duane Smith, almost 60 years after the fact, she recalls the nightmare.
“You should have seen it ... There was nobody in the streets ... The whole town was in mourning. Everything in town was shut down,” she said.
Every nurse she knew came down with the disease and two of them died. Mercy Hospital appealed to its sister hospital in Denver for nurses and physicians. The Durango City Council asked the Red Cross to open an emergency hospital in the Durango Exchange on Main Avenue.
Tragedy in SilvertonSilverton had the highest flu mortality rate per capita in the nation. Yes, the nation.
The town lost 246 people, or 10 percent of its population.
During the worst of the epidemic, a “death wagon” made daily rounds and transported bodies from the homes of miners and mercantile clerks alike.
Durango came to the aid of its neighbors, and Red Cross volunteers sent fresh broth up daily on the train. Several young women volunteered in the Miners Union Hospital or homes of the incapacitated to prepare meals and tend fires.
Physicians from nearby communities also rotated through the hospital. Eventually running out of coffins, the victims were buried in trench graves, their bodies wrapped in blankets.
Durango survived The Great Influenza of 1918 better than many towns.
The health care community, governing bodies and volunteer agencies like the Red Cross and Durango Exchange worked together to confront the worst natural disaster our community would ever face. We hope.
Guy Walton is a retired nurse and co-author with Barbara Moorehead of “Mercy Hospital of the San Juans.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.