Willem’s fever was burning as he lay on a makeshift hospital bed in Steinbach, Manitoba in November 1919. Just 17 years old, he was a victim of the Spanish flu, a pandemic ravaging the world at the time.
The temporary hospital, formerly the only school in the little village, was now filled with the sick. Schooling was necessarily pushed aside as medical professionals worked tirelessly to save as many people as they could.
Spanish flu symptoms included extremely high fever, fatigue and ultimately fluid filling the lungs, causing suffocation. In the end it infected about a quarter of the globe. It was something the world hadn’t seen in a very long time.
So pressing was the onslaught of sickness that the local doctor had to make life-and-death decisions about who would receive treatment. One can only imagine the stress and heartache this would bring upon doctors whose very oath required serving the sick to the very best of their ability. Yet the crisis called for such decisions to be made every day.
In Willem’s case, the doctor arrived at a gut-wrenching choice. He did not believe Willem would live and therefore moved on to care for others. A nurse who observed the decision decided to act. She quickly packed Willem’s body with as much ice as possible in a last-ditch effort to bring down his extremely high fever.
In a world where Spanish flu statistics were measured in the millions, with some estimates putting the death toll at 50 million, Willem’s life was saved. The actions of one dedicated, heroic nurse changed the course of history for one 17-year old.
Fast forward to 2020. We are in the middle of a global pandemic. The times have changed and the technology with which we can attack a virus has improved, but one fact remains. We are depending on heroic, selfless and dedicated healthcare workers to save lives. They are on the front lines putting their own lives at risk every single day. Sadly, some will not survive their call to duty. And yet they soldier on, doing everything possible to save as many people as possible.
It’s difficult to find words to thank our healthcare heroes. When they made the choice to enter the profession it’s doubtful they ever considered they would be on the front lines battling a global pandemic. It’s not for the faint of heart, and we can all be sure there are times they enter their hospitals with fear and trepidation. Yet they continue to serve, and just like Willem was saved over 100 years ago, they are saving lives one at a time. Of course, we all know the current pandemic has cost many lives and this must crush the spirit of the healthcare worker like nothing else.
I know that I add my voice to millions of others when I offer thanks to our medical staff, along with my prayers for their protection. It’s all we can do to hold them up at this time, along with following all of the rules for staying safe and healthy ourselves.
Thankfully life for Willem didn’t end in November 1919. In fact, he went on to marry Marie, become the father of four children (tragically losing his firstborn daughter to a drowning death in her late teens, a sadness that stayed with him for life, as anyone would expect), and be blessed with six grandchildren.
Known as “Bill” to his friends, his life was anything but ordinary. It was built upon a strong faith; he served in many capacities in his church, including singing in a quartet that travelled throughout the region. He was always active in his community, looking for ways to help others. From a career perspective, he had his own business and was an expert in working with his hands, having mastered the skills of carpentry, plumbing, painting and the like. He served as a volunteer fire chief, was a master hunter and angler, and spent as much time as he could in the great outdoors.
His inventive and industrious spirit reached its pinnacle when he built and flew the first airplane in southern Manitoba. The local preacher at his church was understandably so concerned about Bill the “daredevil” that he asked him what he should preach at his funeral. Bill’s wit and humour were evident as he answered: “What makes you think I want you preaching at my funeral?”
As for me, I remember him as my grandfather. He had endless amounts of time for me and the memories we created will carry me to the end of my days.
None of these memories would be possible without his nurse and her lifesaving efforts. So, once again thanks to her and the multitude of healthcare professionals.
May you all stay safe and healthy.