Joan Bittner Fry
The following article was taken in part from the 1992 Annual Report of Waynesboro Hospital. This story seems timely. It is about the role played by our local community’s beloved Dr. Harvey C. Bridgers, who had a private practice in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. He was a doctor on the staff at the State Sanatorium Tuberculosis Hospital in Sabillasville (the first TB hospital in Maryland), as well as the Waynesboro Hospital. His battle against the Spanish Influenza was indeed valiant.
From: Part 2 Plus, a self-published book by Joan Bittner Fry of Sabillasville in 2009
Dr. Harvey C. Bridgers (1885-1965)
“The Autumn of the “Spanish Lady”
In 1918, buried behind the headlines of war, a mysterious flu virus quietly hopscotched across the world, growing to epidemic proportions then vanishing as quickly as it appeared—leaving millions dead. This virus killed more than 22 million people. This estimate includes half a million Americans—more than the total number of lives lost in World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam combined. Despite the ever-mounting death rate during the course of the epidemic, health officials fought to keep publicity at a minimum to avoid panic.
The first documented cases in the United States came in March 1918 from Fort Riley, Kansas, where 522 soldiers were affected. The Army continued training two million men and shipping them across the North Atlantic to France, England, and then Spain, where eight million Spaniards died. It came to be known as the “Spanish Influenza.” Although many blamed Spain for hosting the virus, in truth, the first outbreaks in the United States occurred at about the same time as Spain’s. The disease was confined to the Army for several months until early September when the first civilian case was documented in Boston.
No town is immune to the ravages of the Spanish Influenza. Waynesboro and nearby communities are devastated, while a tenacious young doctor battles the virus. Out of the record numbers of dead rose the need for a community hospital.
“It Can’t Happen Here”
When Spanish Influenza struck Waynesboro at the end of October 1918, the community didn’t panic. They had already battled tuberculosis and scarlet fever. By the time the flu was in full swing in Pennsylvania, Dr. Kinter, who had been appointed by Dr. Benjamin Royer, Acting Commissioner of Health for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, found that Pennsylvania had been hit hard. A total of 5,000 people died in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia alone, with more than 500 bodies piled up awaiting burial in Philadelphia in just one day.
By the second week in October, Franklin County had reported 1,300 cases, with 60 cases reported the following week and a warning that the disease was spreading. By mid-October, The Record Herald reported that there were several local families in which every member was sick. The newspaper made a plea for volunteers to keep fires going at families’ homes where there were sick, and to help get food to quarantined victims. Emergency hospitals were hastily set up in the Waynesboro YMCA and on the second floor of the Firemen’s Hall, with patients filling every bed and cot available. From October 1 to 16, forty people died in Waynesboro, the highest number of deaths ever tabulated in this area for that length of time.
During the first part of November, The Record Herald made no further mention of the flu, the headlines busy now with news of the war. On November 20, the epidemic made news again in the headline “Influenza is Again Manifest in Local Life,” and 20 new cases were reported. Those who suspected they might have the flu were advised to call a physician; although, by this time, most doctors simply could not take on any new patients.
Dr. Harvey C. Bridgers, a physician in Blue Ridge Summit from 1917 to 1952, wrote the following account of his experiences with the epidemic:
“After I had been practicing about a year and a half, the great influenza epidemic of 1918 struck our community. It began in October, and during that winter, spread to an alarming degree. People died in numbers so appalling as to make it remembered as one of the most disastrous epidemics in the nation’s history.
In the influenza epidemic, each doctor had to proceed according to his own knowledge and experience. Many doctors used stimulants, especially whiskey, to bring their patients through the crisis of the disease. I did not use whiskey because I felt that such a temporary stimulant could not accomplish a prolonged improvement.
Usually, the influenza patient, upon examination, appeared to have some unknown virus, poison or toxemia. It occurred to me that if that poison could be diluted and taken rapidly enough from the body through the skin, kidneys, and bowels, the patient would have a good chance of recovery.
Now that our modern antibiotics have come into use, my method will never be resorted to again; but for the record, I shall describe it here, especially because out of so many, only one of my influenza patients died during that epidemic in 1918.
To force the fluids out of the body to lower the fever is a process known as “antipyretics.” For this function, I had our pharmacist put up for me drugs in the proper doses, and I took large quantities of these around with me.
The reaction of one of my patients to my prescribed method of treatment was so extraordinary that, above all others, it will be hard to believe. A man I visited one afternoon had a temperature of 103 degrees. He was delirious. I prescribed the method of treatment stated above. When I saw him the following day, perspiration was dripping on the floor even under his bed. It had soaked through the bed linen and through the mattress. However, the patient’s temperature had become normal, and he wanted something to eat.
People died so quickly and in such unprecedented numbers that, in some areas, fire houses were used as places for the dead, which were awaiting their turns for embalming and interment.”
Dr. Bridgers himself became infected after visiting a family where seven members were ill in bed—all in the same room. But there were still scores of patients to be treated, so the doctor accepted a local boy’s offer to drive his car for him to make more rounds. Dr. Bridgers wrote the following account of that day:
“As the day wore on, I became more ill and enfeebled. In the last house I visited, I remember only putting some capsules on the bureau in the bedroom. That loyal boy got me back to my office, where many patients were waiting for me. My wife saw that I was ill and telephoned to Dr. Victor Cullen at the Maryland State Sanatorium. He drove me from my office and took me upstairs to bed. There, propped on pillows, I wrote prescriptions and sent them downstairs until Mrs. Bridgers closed the door on any and all comers. When I heard Mrs. Bridgers telling a man that I was ill, I remember calling through the window, ‘tell Jesse Black to go home and go to bed—he has pneumonia!’ My own illness became complicated with pneumonia. It was some weeks before I could take up duties at my office again.”
In December, when the last victims were finally recovered, the local people decided that another such disaster must not occur without the proper facilities to deal with it. The epidemic had ended the long-standing community debate over whether or not a hospital was needed in Waynesboro. After three grim and exhausting months of confronting the Spanish Lady, the opposition was won over. Four years from the flu’s outbreak, on October 2, 1922, Waynesboro Hospital first opened its doors to the community.