The Yellow Fever Epidemic in New Orleans - 1853 (Page 3)

In the latter part of August there were new developments in the disease, and greater difficulty in treating it. After a few days of convalescence, the patient failed to gain appetite or strength, distressing boils appeared on the body, and a fatal relapse was not uncommon. Another characteristic appeared in some patients on the second day of their attack. "Round purple spots, the size of a dime, with the edges darker than the centre," were discovered on their bodies. "If they survived the third day, the side on which they lay for a few hours became of the same color, as if mortification had set in from interruption to a free circulation through the laggard veins." These symptoms suggested to physicians who had not forgotten their classical reading the descriptions of Thucydides and Lucretius, and gave rise to the conjecture that the spots indicated a modified type of the most famous of plagues.

When the historian writes that the physicians were faithful, brave, and untiring, he simply adds another to the many tributes to the character of the American medical profession. The yellow fever of 1853 was the most aggravated type ever known. The doctors early recognized this fact, and appreciated that different treatment was required from that which had hitherto been in vogue. Cupping, which in former epidemics had been deemed indispensable, was now only employed in rare cases, and even then with the greatest caution. The differences in treatment among the native physicians were not material except on one point; and this was whether quinine should be administered, and, if so, whether in large or small quantities. The physicians not only worked nobly, but with rare good sense. In the presence of the appalling scourge, they felt that petty wrangles were unworthy of their profession, and adjourned their disputes until the epidemic was over, when they carried them on in the columns of newspapers and magazines instead of in the sick-chamber or hospital.

 The "Samaritan," who seems to have been a man of discernment and good judgment, made some curious observations. The only quarrel he reported was the case of two German doctors who, by a mistake, were asked to visit the same patient. Both prescribed; each condemned the treatment of the other; and each, at every visit, threw the medicine of his rival into the street. The poor patient could not venture to decide between the two, and therefore took the physic of neither, but drank copiously of ice-water. He was soon beyond danger and convalesced rapidly.

Two patients in a hospital had their cots changed by some accident, and as the doctor prescribed by number, the convalescent got the medicine of the one who had been sick but thirty-six hours, while he in turn took physic which, according to the directions of the faculty, was neither proper nor useful until the disease had been eight days in progress. Both patients finally recovered.

A physician who had a diploma from the College of the Seine at Paris came to the hospital stricken with the disease, and claimed the right of prescribing for himself. He was a friend to the heroic treatment, had himself cupped and bled frequently and freely, and swallowed the strongest of drugs; his strength failed him. He had no power to resist the disease, and fell its victim.

A circumstance worthy of note is the difference of treatment among physicians of different nationalities. It was the policy of the Howard Association to send respectively to sick Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Germans doctors of their own country. The Spanish physician would give to his patients on the first day of convalescence the juice of fresh oysters; the German, at the height of the disease, advised strong fluid nourishment, and in convalescence hard-boiled eggs; the French physicians would give hot drinks or cold drinks, and enjoin close covering or no covering at all. Each treatment seemed to be equally successful.

A circumstance worthy of note is the difference of treatment among physicians of different nationalities. It was the aim of the Howard Association to send respectively to sick Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Germans doctors of their own country. The Spanish physician would give to his patients on the first day of convalescence the juice of fresh oysters; the German, at the height of the disease, advised
strong fluid nourishment, and in convalescence hard-boiled eggs; the French physicians would give hot drinks or cold drinks, and enjoin close covering or no covering at all. Each treatment seemed to be equally successful.

The doctors, recognizing that careful nursing was as important as skilful medical attendance, made many visits simply of counsel and suggestion to their assistants. Nurses were plentiful, and good ones easily obtained. The fever did not attack negroes or quadroons, and white persons once having the disease rarely suffered from it again. Thus there was a large class of people available for ministering to the sick. The Sisters of Charity received a special tribute from the "Samaritan," though he was not of their religion. "Chief above all," he writes, "do I record the praise of the Sisters of Charity...They do good by stealth...I have seen them in the silent rounds of duty, in the infirmaries, hospitals, and rickety tenements of the poor, comforting their own sex of all religions, castes, and conditions, fearless of contamination, dressing loathsome wounds and inhaling the most nauseating odors...The world may be bad in
the main, but a redeeming feature is this institution, which is as a golden connecting link between heaven and earth."

Many strange experiences does this observer record.

Next Page