Medical Matters

Tony Northan

Asian Flu pandemic strikes Catterick Camp!

Does anyone remember the Asian 'flu pandemic which hit the UK in 1957? According to official medical sources it was first reported in China in February of that year and spread throughout the globe within six months. It infected 40-50% of the world's population and killed more than one million people. In the UK alone it was responsible for in excess of 30,000 deaths of which 6,716 were directly attributed to the influenza itself. The peak months were September and October and I remember it hitting home just how serious it was when we heard that somewhere in Catterick two of our kind had died after contracting it.

The camp hospital was overwhelmed with cases so empty barrack rooms anywhere in Catterick, even though not suitable for the purpose, were hurriedly fitted-out as emergency wards. The barracks in Le Cateau lines at least were nothing more than brick sheds, with rusting iron-framed windows (no double-glazing in those days) and a thumb-latch door. They were though centrally-heated... via two brick-built back-to-back open fireplaces sharing a single chimney positioned in the centre of the room! In normal use this set-up was great for those whose bed was closest but naff for everyone else especially during a Yorkshire winter. Each barrack room kept its coal supply in a big square cast-iron bin which was topped-up via a weekly delivery by lorry round the lines on Friday afternoons. I painfully remember doing that chore as a fatiguer and always finished-up totally knackered.

If suitable medical wards were at a premium at such a time so too were qualified staff to man them. The twenty beds set-up in each barrack - ten each side - were soon filled to capacity. Those of us who'd managed to avoid the dreaded foreign lurgy were detailed to act as temporary medics, given a brief instruction in basic hygiene by the M.O. and in shifts 24/7 attended to the feeding and personal welfare of the afflicted.

Most of those in our lines went down with it and inevitably some of us 'ministering angels' would ourselves become victims. I particularly remember my own brush with the bacterium at the end of October as another Le Cateau bloke and myself were practically the last in the lines to succumb. Our carers, for whom by now the novelty had worn off, indulged themselves in a little light-relief by putting each of us in a bed at opposite ends of the now patient-less 'ward' thus making conversation between us difficult but we were too far gone to summon-up the inclination or the strength to make the effort which must have spoiled their fun. The M. O. on his daily round soon put a stop to it by having us moved to adjacent beds at one end of the room so that, as terrible as we felt, we could at least compare symptoms and mutually sympathise. One practical and sensible tactic employed by our carers was that, with eighteen beds now unoccupied, as we soaked the sheets on one bed (with sweat I hasten to add) we were moved to the next two along so that a change of bedding could take place. As to our sodden jim-jams... I'm sure such namby-pamby items never ever formed part of standard army kit issue but a supply from somewhere was certainly made available for everyone. Facilitated by the sheet-changing procedure the two of us played 'musical beds' by travelling in stages to the far end of the room by which time our immune systems finally won the battle against the dastardly Far Eastern invader. I expected that life would soon return to normal but little did I know that within three weeks I would once again be under medical care, this time in splendid isolation in the Camp Hospital. It was there in November 1957 that I celebrated my 21st birthday!

German Measles pandemic misses Catterick Camp!

Having only just recovered from my bout of 'flu I woke one morning to find myself smothered in a red rash. No doubt my immune system was still open to attack so obviously another dastardly invader had crept up on me under cover of darkness and assaulted my person. I forthwith presented on that day's sick parade where the M.O., still reeling from the effects of coping with one epidemic and desperate to avoid another, took one look at me and uttered what I thought was a foreign expletive, 'Rubella'! He soon informed me that this was the medical term for German Measles. What... at my age?

As my infected person was wanted as far away from military humanity as possible I was whipped straight into camp centre hospital and immediately placed in solitary confinement - or to refer to it in medical terms - isolation. As I took-up residence a hastily-scrawled sign repeating that foreign word was slapped on the door, no doubt intended to warn passers-by that danger lurked within but the medically-uninitiated probably thought it was the tacky nameplate of some foreign floozy offering her services: 'Knock three times and ask for Ruby'. Thankfully nobody did!

I was incarcerated for over seven days but the room was well-supplied with various means of passing the time: books, cards, etc. and a radio. The R.A.M.C. medics, not too weighed-down with duties, were glad of a chat and dropped-in frequently. Every day I received a bottle of stout which I was made to drink under supervision as it is known to be a good source of iron and I certainly needed building-up. I 'celebrated' my 21st. birthday during that week in late November and on that occasion I was allowed two bottles! A once-in-a-lifetime event and no mates or outsiders allowed in to share it with me. There were a couple of nights when I woke in a panic to find someone peering at me intently but the intruder turned-out to be the duty medic doing his rounds just checking that I hadn't passed on, passed over or passed through during the night.

All-in-all a welcome rest from the daily grind with not too much discomfort medically to spoil it.

Tony Northan, 7th June 2011