Those living in the lower Mississippi River Valley have suffered from pandemics and epidemics over the centuries. And today, the arrival of COVID-19 has interrupted lives and frightened most everyone on the planet.
The anguish of today is not new. Communities have experienced this dread before.
In this region of the world, diseases and viruses – small pox, malaria, cholera, polio, among others – have sickened and decimated a terrified populace.
Doctors and caregivers throughout the decades have struggled to treat patients and find cures.
Though communications, health care and medicine are light years ahead of that of the 19th century, fear is still packaged the same way.
In the 1800s, news of the yellow fever created fear in every household.
“Just across the street from where I was nursing my sick friend was the undertaker's shop, and his saw and hammer were going all night” building caskets for the growing number of dead bodies, recalled H.S. Fulkerson of the days in 1843 when the yellow fever paralyzed Rodney, Miss.
“In the rear of the old tavern where we were, some hundred yards distant, resided two sisters of the lower class of people, who were down with the fever, and who had to trust to chance attentions. They occupied the same bed. About midnight my attention was arrested by a feeble cry for help coming from that direction. One of the sisters had crawled to the door of their lowly tenement, and I heard her in the silence of the night cry out in feeble tone:
“’My poor sister is dead, will somebody come!’”
Fulkerson said his “flesh crawled at this mournful cry. Some kindly soul after a long delay, and when the cries had grown too feeble to be heard, went to her relief.”
The sickness that spread through Rodney was dreaded and feared. No one knew then that the disease was spread by the bite of a mosquito. An outbreak would usually end once the first frost was recorded, the time when the mosquitoes began to die off.
According to the World Health Organization: “Once contracted, the yellow fever virus incubates in the body for 3 to 6 days. Many people do not experience symptoms, but when these do occur, the most common are fever, muscle pain with prominent backache, headache, loss of appetite, and nausea or vomiting. In most cases, symptoms disappear after 3 to 4 days.
“A small percentage of patients, however, enter a second, more toxic phase within 24 hours of recovering from initial symptoms. High fever returns and several body systems are affected, usually the liver and the kidneys. In this phase people are likely to develop jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes, hence the name ‘yellow fever’), dark urine and abdominal pain with vomiting. Bleeding can occur from the mouth, nose, eyes or stomach. Half of the patients who enter the toxic phase die within 7 - 10 days.”
Treatment of the yellow fever virus in 19th century was horrendous, and primarily involved withdrawing blood from the patient. This practice was commonly called “bleeding,” “bloodletting,” or “cupping.”
‘ABANDONING SICK FRIENDS’
In his 19th century book (Random Recollections of Early Days in Mississippi), Fulkerson remembered that terrible summer in Rodney:
“In the month of August, 1843, this little town, situated on the Mississippi river, for the first time was visited by this dreadful malady. It was without physicians of experience in the disease, but they treated it, nevertheless, with such success as usually attends its treatment, some sufferers dying and others getting well in defiance of skill and good nursing, or grossest neglect and empiricism, just as has always been the case wherever the disease has prevailed.” Some “die often under the most favorable circumstances, and they get well often under the worst.
“At this little town I had a friend who had nursed me most carefully a few years before through a severe spell of sickness. I felt very grateful to him, and after the fever had gotten well under way at Rodney, I wrote him to let me know it if he were attacked, and I would go down and nurse him.
“I was then living at Grand Gulf, twenty miles above Rodney. I got no answer to my letter, and early in September, I boarded a boat one day and went down, fearing from his silence that he was sick. I arrived early in the forenoon of the day I left, and immediately sought my friend, whom I found in bed with the fever on him, he having been attacked but a very few hours before my arrival, and had not as yet seen a physician. I hurried off to get one, and he was soon under treatment.
“This friend of mine had organized the band of faithful nurses of the town, and was himself constantly on duty. As long as he kept up and cheered the sick with his assuring presence, and encouraged the well by his fearless bearing, all went well, and all felt hopeful, and manifested a willingness to stick by the stricken ones.”
But when this respected citizen and friend of Fulkerson’s – Tom McGinley -- fell ill with the virus it “seemed to paralyze the whole town and a panic was the result; causing many of the well ones to take to flight, a few of them shamelessly abandoning sick friends. They went into the country where they were kindly received and hospitably entertained by the planters.”
‘A DRIZZLING RAIN SET IN’
“ … This first day of my stay at Rodney during the prevalence of the yellow fever, (I had several years before resided there) was my first and last experience in a panic. I had it badly myself, I must confess, but I never entertained the idea of abandoning my friend. It is an exceedingly unpleasant sensation, and circumstances conspired to heighten it in my case. The thought of the sick of the town being abandoned to their fate, was enough of itself to produce the greatest possible gloom in my mind, but as the night came on, a drizzling rain set in, and extreme darkness shrouded the street.
“ … I was up all night with my friend, administering his medicine and walking from side to side of the bed endeavoring to keep the cover on him. His fever had risen very high, he was very restless and bordering on delirium. Had my experience then been what it has been since, I should have trembled for both myself and friend. I have since then nursed those delirium cases when it required all the strength of four able-bodied men to control them.
“My friend had a powerful frame and in delirium I would have been as a child in his hands. I was all alone with him. Fortunately he only wandered a little in his mind; did not get wild.
“Nursing in this disease is very laborious, owing to the restlessness of the patient and the importance of keeping up perspiration until the fever subsides, and this depends much upon being kept well under cover. Two nurses are constantly needed as there are frequent calls from the bedside to other duties, and the nursing does not end with the subsidence of the fever. The exhaustion that follows the fever, when the patient will tell you he is entirely free from pain and feels that he is well, is a very critical period.
“ … My friend's condition continued to alternate between hope and deep anxiety until the sixth day, he getting from me such nursing as I could give in my half asleep state most of the time, when to my great joy two friends of mine residing in the neighboring town of Port Gibson … arrived, and as they said, to look after me.
“One of them, Dr. Todd … and the other my dear friend Jas. W. Coleman … Neither of them had ever had the fever. The relief I felt at their timely arrival I cannot express. The Dr. we persuaded to return after spending two days with us, while my friend Coleman remained to assist me with McGinley, whom he had known and appreciated, and to nurse me should I be taken.”
‘THE MERCILESS CUPPING'
“We continued to care for our friend until the fever left him, on the ninth day, and he was convalescing. On the night of that day I had laid down in the room, to be called when wanted. About the middle of the night my friend asked for water, and as I returned to my bed after I had given it to him I felt a sensation in the region of the spine something like what I suppose would be the sensation from a stroke by a venomous reptile. I covered up but soon found a fever on me. I called to my friend Coleman, and Dr. Picket of the town, asleep in an adjoining room, who came to me, and in ten minutes time they had me in a mustard bath, (we kept hot water ready all the time looking to the contingency of my being attacked) and in less than half an hour I was crazy.
“They took care of me, but how, I do not know. With the morning the phrenzy fortunately passed off, and I remained conscious throughout the remaining time of my illness. My friend was up in a few days and assisted, as he had strength, in nursing me.
“The pain in my head and back was excruciating. The luxury and value of ice in the disease were unknown at that day. The most I remember of the kind Doctor's treatment, and other things, is the merciless cupping he gave me in the region of the spine, and Coleman's equally merciless laugh when I would spring from one side of the bed to the other at the stroke of the cupping instrument.”
“I also recollect that I never knew before that a blanket weighed as much as a ton! Coleman, dear fellow! was quite a wit, and would often rally me, when in a despondent mood, by his raillery, and when that failed he would dance a jig for me.
“They nursed me through until I was able to go into the country. My old friend Col. Tom Dobyns sent his carriage for me, and I remained at his beautiful and hospitable home on the banks of Cole's Creek, (making myself half sick every day with the good things his kind lady would provide,) until I had strength enough to return to my own home … my normal strength did not return for six months, and the yellowness in my eyes did not leave in all that time … The fever at Rodney ran its accustomed course till frost, or until the subjects were exhausted, with a no greater percentage of deaths to the number attacked than usually occurs in a visitation of yellow fever.”
During the course of epidemics and pandemics in the past, scientists and doctors eventually figured out how to battle the diseases. Blame never solved the problem and hysteria never helped.
In time, the storm will pass.