Dr Lang remembers diphtheria

“In 1946 there was an extensive outbreak of diphtheria in New Zealand. We had about 1000 cases admitted to the Auckland Hospital. Most but not all were children. They arrived by car, or ambulance with obstructed breathing, blue in the face and gasping for breath. Some were already dead. Others had only minutes to live. The trachea is blocked up with mucus and sometimes the secretions from the lungs and that all has to be removed, sucked away, with a suction tube, and the airway cleared before the child can breathe. So many of these children came just at the point where they were almost taking their last breath and from there on you had about two minutes.

About sixty of them required tracheostomy. You had to do them very rapidly indeed. The child was gasping without being able to take a breath in, blue in the face and almost dead.

This would happen two or three times a day during this epidemic and there was no time to call in surgeons. With the facilities available in those days the procedure was hazardous, hazardous enough to challenge even senior surgeons. and there would be no time for them to come down to our place and do anything so we had to do it ourselves. I taught my residents, including the students, to do this thing and they did it very well indeed and none of them lost a patient that way. If one could get in in the two minutes that were available, and open in to the passages without striking a major artery and having them inhale their own blood and die. That was virtually the problem.

In the event the operation fell to the lot of junior doctors at a time of grave shortage with one third of the profession overseas during the war. For the same reason immunisation rates had fallen disastrously in this country. For the one who had to handle this situation for the most part, the memory is indelible. Diphtheria is only one of a number of infections that kept the worlds population down in past centuries.

And I think of those parents, 100% wished that they had had their children immunised.”

This story has been edited from a recorded interview for the Piercing Memories project and is posted on IMAC’s website with the consent of the author.