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1.8: “We sure did get tired-” Letter from a Volunteer Nurse, October 17, 1918

  • Page ID
    55877
  • “We sure did get tired:” Letter from a Volunteer Nurse, October 17, 1918

    By Lutiant Lavoye

    Introduction:

    Lutiant Lavoye was a Chippewa girl from Minnesota who graduated from the Haskell Indian School in Kansas and, at age 19, volunteered to help nurse soldiers in Camp Humphreys near Washington, D.C during the Influenza epidemic in October of 1918. This is a letter she wrote to her friend at the school. After only a week or so, staff at the camp hospital sent Lutiant home because the patients were so sick and she was too inexperienced.

    Unfortunately, the Haskell school officials read her letter to Louise and she was reprimanded for her remark about Head Matron Katherine Keck and cooking teacher Mae McCauley. Miss Keck was very unpopular with the Indian girls in the dormitory and was later transferred from the school.

    To read more about Lutiant and the school, see the articles listed at the end of this reading.


    Dear friend Louise:

    So everybody has the “Flu” at Haskell? I wish to goodness Miss Keck and Mrs. McK. would get it and die with it. Really, it would be such a good riddance, and not much lost either! As many as 90 people die every day here with the “Flu.” Soldiers too, are dying by the dozens. So far, Felicity, C. Zane, and I are the only ones of the Indian girls who have not had it. We certainly consider ourselves lucky too, believe me. Katherine and I just returned last Sunday evening from Camp Humphreys “Somewhere in Virginia” where we volunteered to help nurse soldiers sick with the Influenza. … All nurses were required to work twelve hours a day–we worked from seven in the morning until seven at night, with only a short time for luncheon and dinner.

    Believe me, we were always glad when night came because we sure did get tired. We had the actual Practical nursing to do–just like the other nurses had, and were given a certain number of wards with three or four patients in each of them to look after. Our chief duties were to give medicines to the patients, take temperatures, fix ice packs, feed them at “eating time”, rub their back or chest with camphorated sweet oil, make egg-nogs, and a whole string of other things I can’t begin to name. I liked the work just fine, but it was too hard, not being used to it. When I was in the Officer’s barracks, four of the officers of whom I had charge, died. Two of them were married and called for their wife nearly all the time. It was sure pitiful to see them die. I was right in the wards alone with them each time, and Oh! The first one that died sure unnerved me–I had to go to the nurses’ quarters and cry it out. The other three were not so bad. Really, Louise, Orderlies carried the dead soldiers out on stretchers at the rate of two every three hours for the first two days they were there. Two German spies, posing as doctors, were caught giving these Influenza germs to the soldiers and they were shot last Saturday at sunrise. It is such a horrible thing, it is hard to believe, and yet such things happen almost every day in Washington.

    Photo of a large warehouse with rows of beds filled with influenza patients.
    Emergency hospital in Camp Funston, Kansas, in the midst of the influenza epidemic.

    "Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic" by National Museum of Health and Medicine is licensed under CC BY 4.0

    Repeated calls come from the Red Cross for nurses to do district work right here in D. C. I volunteered again, but as yet I have not been called and am waiting. Really, they are certainly “hard up” for nurses–even me can volunteer as a nurse in a camp or in Washington. There are about 800 soldiers stationed at Potomac Park right here in D. C. just a short distance from the Interior building where I work, and this morning’s paper said that the deaths at this Park were increasing, so if fortune favors me, I may find myself there before the week is ended. I have a very dear soldier friend who is stationed there--Lt. Cantril by name. ‘Twas so funny how we first met. I was completely lost in St. Louis at the Union station (on my way to D.C.) and simply had no idea where I was going--just wandering around the station to pass away my 3 ½ hrs. there waiting for my train. Finally, I thought of sending Odile a telegram so she could be at the station to meet me. I went to the Postal office right there in the Station and this soldier was standing there waiting to send a telegram too I waited, waitied, and waited and could not get in to send one, so I picked up my suit case and traveling bag and started toward the Ladies’ Waiting room. Instead of taking my own traveling bag, I left mine and picked up this soldier’s bag. They were as much alike as two peas, and I was so tired I never took special notice, but I thought I had my own bag. When I opened it to get out my comb and powder--behold! There was a kit-bag fully equiped and a knitted sweater in it, plus a few other trinkets. I knew then, whose bag I had, so checked my suit case and started to look for this soldier and exchange bags, as I thought he had mine. After walking around 45 minutes I began to despair of ever finding him and started back to the Ladies room and I came upon him sitting in one corner. I recognized my bag right away and went to exchange. He was simply so tickled to get his bag back he almost squeezed the life out of my hand when he shook it. I had my card and destination tacked on the handle of my bag, so he found out where I was going without telling him--and as fate would have it--he was going to D.C. too, so we traveled the rest of the way together. He is a perfect gentleman, and sure treated me nice on the way. Since I am located here, he has been down to our house twice to see me since I came back from Camp Humphreys, and he sure wants me to come down to Potomac Park as a nurse. He is not what one would call “handsome” but he is certainly good-looking , and on top of all that--he is CATHOLIC. Sure like it for myself too. All the girls have soldiers–Indian girls also. Some of the girls have soldiers and sailors too. The boys are particularly crazy about the Indian girls. They tell us that the Indian girls are not so “easy” as the white girls, so I guess maybe that’s their reason.

    Graduation photo of a young woman in a white dress and a serious expression.
    "Lutiant Lavoye" by National Archives at Kansas City is in the Public Domain

    Washington is certainly a beautiful place. There is so much to be said in favor of it, that if I started, I don’t believe I should ever get through. Odile and I have to pass by the Capitol, the Union Station, the War Department, the Pension Bldg., and through the noted Lincoln park every morning to our way to work. The Washington Monument (555ft. high) is within walking distance of the Interior Department (where we work) and we walked there last evening after work. It certainly is high and we are planning to go up in the elevator some time to look over the city. We were going last evening, but the place is closed temporarily, on account of this “Flu”.

    The Aviation field is another very interesting place here. Air-plaines fly over the cit at all hours of the day now, and sometimes so low that one can hear the noise of the machine.

    Besides Aviators, we have hundreds of soldiers, sailors, Marines, French “Blue Devils ” and even the National band of Italy here in Washington. Douglas Fairbanks and Geraldine Farrar are here also on the fourth Liberty Loan campaign and I was privileged to take a chance to peep at them. Just yesterday, Bouglas sold ONE MILLION DOLLARS WORTH OF BONDS FOR WASHINGTON. It was rumoured that Washington was going to fail to reach its quota in Liberty Bonds on account of having so many deaths and sick people in the city, but the way “Doug” is selling ‘em, it doesn’t seem as if it will. A lot of girls from the Office here go out to sell bonds but some of them don’t make much of a success. One of the Indian girls, named Cathryne Welch, went out last week to sell bonds and seh sold so many that she got recused from the Office for the rest of this week to do nothing but sell bonds. She is a very pretty girl--a high school graduate and one year normal. She has two brothers in the army--one is a Captain and the other a Sergeant. Maybe you remember seeing Capt. Gus Welch’s picture in the K. C. Star--well that is her brother and he is “over there” now.

    All the schools, churches, theaters, dancing halls, etc. are closed here also. There is a bill in the Senate today authorizing all the war-workers to be released from work for the duration of this epidemic. It has not passed the house yet, but I can’t help but hope it does. If it does, Lutiant can find plenty of things at home to busy herself with, or she might accidentally take a trip to Potomac Park. Ha! Ha!

    It is perfectly alright about the sweater. I don’t expect you to be able to get it while you are quarantined, but will still be glad to have it if you can send it as soon as you are out of quarantine. It is rather cold in Washington, but not cold enough to wear winter coats yet, and my suit coat is a little too thin, so I figured out that a sweater would be the thing to have. Sometimes it is cold enough to wear a wrap while working, but of course, it is out of the question to work in a heavy winter coat. However, send it whenever you find it convenient to do so, and I will settle with you as promptly as possible.

    Well Louise, if you are not dead tired reading this letter, I’ll write another like it some other time. There is still a lot I could tell you about D.C., but it’s nearing lunch time and I want to be right there on the dot, as I always am--to be sure.

    Write again whenever you find it convenient to do so--always glad to hear the Kaskell news from you.

    Sincerely your friend,

    Lutiant


    Glossary:

    • Kit-bag - another name for a duffle bag.
    • “one year normal” - normal school is one that trains high school graduates to become teachers.

    Questions:

    1. What duties is Lutiant responsible for as a volunteer nurse? What kind of toll did performing those duties take on her and other volunteers?
    1. What similarities do you see between what’s happening in Washington, DC, due to the flu and how cities and states are reacting to the current epidemic?

    Sources:

    “Hidden Treasures from the Stacks Kindness: Not Always Contagious .” National Archives at Kansas City , Aug. 2011, p. 3, www.archives.gov/files/kansas-city/press/2011/2011-august.pdf .

    Loofbourow, Lili. “This Funny, Mordant Letter From the 1918 Pandemic Says It All.” Slate Magazine , Slate, 1 May 2020, slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/05/1918-flu-pandemic-nurse-letter.html.

    Lutiant Van Wert to “Louise” (10/17/1918). Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75. National Archives Identifier: 2641556. National Archives at Kansas City, Kansas City, MO. Available via National Archives ( https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/records/volunteer-nurse-letter.pdf ).

    Public Domain Mark

    This work (Lutiant Van Wert to “Louise” (10/17/1918), by Unknown ) is free of known copyright restrictions.