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Pandemic: A Woman on Duty

She had already made it five years past the century mark when she finally sat down to share her story for the Veterans History Project (VHP) in 2002. Less than six weeks later, she was gone. Alice Leona Mikel Duffield was a beater of odds. A trailblazer. A go-getter. A caring soul. I’d say that qualifies her as a “shero,” and certainly a veteran worth commemorating as we wrap up Women’s History Month.

Like all the other young ladies living in Arkansas in the early 1900’s, Duffield was expected to marry and be a stay-at-home mother, or remain single and get a job as a servant, telegraph operator or store clerk. If you were fortunate enough to have completed at least the eighth grade, you could work as a school teacher. Those were pretty much all the available opportunities. Although she found the first option of marriage and motherhood initially appealing, Duffield discovered that not only did her beau give her a fake sapphire engagement ring, he was also unfaithful. So she sent the ring back, called it off and swore off marriage forever. (Duffield would go on to marry three times in later years, but this was her mind-set at age 15.)

Alice Duffiled standing outside of a stone building wearing her white nurses uniform and a dark sweater during World War I.

Alice Duffield in uniform during World War I. Alice L. Mikel Duffield Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/1747.

Four years later, she made a connection through a friend, which opened the door to nursing training. While still in training, the Great War broke out. Franklin Roosevelt’s sister came to town recruiting nurses to help with the war effort, and Duffield decided to do her part. As time went on, she found herself assigned to a pneumonia ward on which all the patients were African-American soldiers—an uncommon assignment for a white nurse in those days. Nonetheless, Duffield carried out her duties with compassion each day, sometimes to a fault. Once, a charge nurse caught Duffield in tears over a dying patient, and quickly reprimanded her.

Now, listen here. People are born here. And they die here. We can’t do anything about it. If you spend your life crying about everybody that dies, you’ll never get any work done.

The flu pandemic of 1918 was vicious. Deaths during Duffield’s daily shift were very common, and too numerous for the nurses to count. During her VHP interview, she said, “We didn’t pay any attention…we didn’t have time! It was published in the paper, every day, who died.” Duffield also recounted a gruesome incident, which caused one of the orderlies to have a breakdown on the job.

And finally the black orderly and a white orderly took a patient to the morgue, and when they opened the door, the morgue was so full, that one of them [dead body] fell on the floor and the black orderly came back and he said, ‘Just can’t take it any longer! Just can’t take it any longer!’

Unfortunately, the orderlies were unable to squeeze the body back inside the morgue. After hearing that, I had to take a break from the interview. I needed some fresh air. The story became too much for me. I know I won’t always be this way, but for now…

As I sit inside, teleworking by day and glued to coronavirus/COVID-19 breaking news reports by night, I teeter between trepidation and hope. As a woman of faith, I firmly believe this too shall pass, and I will be OK—the majority of us will be OK. At the same time, it’s hard not to experience a bit of angst when our lives have been turned upside down, and feel like they have come to a screeching halt with little time to brace for impact.

If you were to ask most people how they are feeling in this climate, you’d likely get responses like, “uncertain,” “triggered” and “afraid.” You’d probably also hear, “inspired,” “motivated” and “determined.” I, for one, often run the gamut in 24 hours. I’m sure Alice Duffield must have experienced all of these feelings at some point on that hospital ward. Unlike me, she didn’t have the privilege of taking a break; she had to push through and do her job to the best of her ability. There was no time for tears or fresh air. I am grateful for her service, and that she lived to tell her story.

This Women’s History Month, join me in saluting Alice Duffield and all the other women who served our nation during the flu pandemic that hit more than 100 years ago, as well as those serving today. I also invite you to join me in taking a break from all the news reports, and make time to visit this and other VHP collections while you are practicing social distancing, and keeping yourself and each other safe. Be encouraged!

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