The end of the First World War did not mean an end to the suffering of the population in Macedonia. Although the military actions ended, the devastated land and property, the poverty and contagious diseases have remained for a long time. The lack of medical personnel and medicines was particularly evident due to the presence of contagious diseases such as typhus, influenza, measles, malaria, cholera, etc. The cases of venereal diseases and improperly treated wounds were also very common. One of the few missions that helped the population at that time was the mission of the American Woman’s Hospital (A.W.H), which worked in collaboration with the American Red Cross (A.R.C.).
With the entry of America into the First World War on the side of the Entente on April 6, 1917, a number of female doctors offered their help to the military. At that time in America less than 6% of total number of physicians were women. Although many of them were successful and already proven in their profession, they were accepted into the military only as nurses and auxiliary staff. In 1917, a special commission from the American Red Cross visited Thessaloniki (Salonika), where they were impressed by the success story of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Thus, in cooperation with A.W.H, a similar mission was decided to be sent to the Balkans.
The two cousins Dr. Regina Flood Keyes from Buffalo and Dr. Frances Mabel Flood from Elmira, New York, accepted the invitation and were soon sent to the city of Voden (today Edessa), Greece, near the Macedonian Front, where they opened a hospital.
Dr. Regina Flood Keyes was a renowned surgeon and previously worked as a gynecologist at the main hospital in Buffalo, USA. She was appointed as director of the hospital in Voden, which was housed in an old abandoned building. Although they had money to renovate the old object, it was difficult for them to make any procurement’s because of the poor situation in the Balkans and the danger of Austro-Hungarian attacks on cargo vessels that sailed across the Mediterranean. However, they were well equipped with medical instruments, and with the help of local carpenters, the hospital was soon renovated and put into operation with about fifty hospital beds.
At that time, the city of Voden was crowded with refugees who slept in the streets and although they escaped from the military actions, they could not escape the contagious diseases. Not far from the front line, the doctors from America started another war, against an enemy who the uneducated local population did not understand. It was a fight against the infectious diseases and the ways of their transmission. Thus the hospital was thoroughly renovated, cleaned, and surgical gauze was installed on the windows, serving as net for protection against mosquitoes and other insects.
Dispensaries were opened in which the doctors with two other nurses from America and staff from the local population worked from morning till dawn, and by the beginning of 1918, they have managed to examine approximately 3,000 patients per month. Women doctors were something new especially in the Balkans, but with their sacrificial work they quickly gained the sympathy of the local population and helped a lot during the influenza epidemic that occurred in the autumn of 1918.
At the invitation of the French Army during the offensive on the Macedonian Front in September 1918, Dr Regina temporarily worked in a mobile ambulance near the front line (Breakthrough at Dobro Pole). The surgical interventions were performed continuously for several days in a tent in front of which wounded soldiers waited while grenades fell in the vicinity. She was later decorated by the French government for her work.
After the breakthrough of the front line, the hospital from Voden was moved to Bitola (Monastir), a city that was constantly bombarded and largely destroyed in a period of two years.
When the doctors arrived in Bitola, the city was “open graveyard”. Wolves and dogs were wandering on nearby hills, digging the shallow graves, and eating the remains. On many places, scattered human remains could be found, and in the villages lived human skeletons, wrapped in rags, surviving by eating roots. Bitola was full with orphans for which no one knew where they came from, nor how did they managed to survive the war. Many of them occasionally appeared naked in the Red Cross feeding stations, while others were found crumpled in the rubble of their homes, slowly dying of influenza, typhoid or famine. Soldiers and captives returning to their homes were additional problem with their improperly treated wounds, and among the female population, venereal diseases posed to be a major problem.
„The war has been won; now the peace must be won” was the motto of the American mission and they immediately started with their work.
Some of the buildings that were still standing after the war were the Clock Tower and one large building next to it, which according to the archive of A.R.C was an old Turkish school. After the renovation of the interior, the hospital started with its work and soon gained a reputation as one of the best hospitals in the Balkans.
As in the Voden Hospital, special attention was paid to the hygienic conditions in the facility and the patients who were being treated. The hospital quickly became famous as “The Flyless Hospital of the Balkans”. An ambulance, a bath and a special disinfection section were also opened. Soon the doctors had hands full of work and over two hundred people a day were examined.
From USA also arrived aid in food, medicines and clothing for the population. Food cards were distributed in order to properly distribute the aid. There were also cases where the deceased were hidden or buried in their homes, as their family would not have been shorten for a meal from A.R.C.
Dr. Regina worked as a surgeon and director of the hospital, while Dr. Frances was in charge of non-surgical cases, such as those infected with typhus and influenza. The two cousins among the locals became known as the “Angels of Bitola”.
Soon more help came from USA and in addition to the hospital in Bitola, other hospitals were opened in other cities also. More aid was sent in form of medical and agricultural equipment, food, medicines and clothing for the impoverished population.
Both doctors left Bitola in 1920.
Dr. Frances Mabel Flood returned to the United States in 1920 and married Alfred Heath of Liverpool England who she met on her return to the United States. They lived in Elmira where Mabel reopened her private practice and in 1922 their daughter Marjorie Louise was born. She died on April 26, 1923, of complications following an appendix surgery. On May 3, 1927, she was posthumously decorated with the Order of St. Sava by King Aleksandar from Serbia, and the prize was received by her daughter, who also died two years later from pneumonia.
Dr. Regina Flood Keyes married Quincy F. Roberts, who in 1919-1920 was the US vice-consul in Thessaloniki. She accompanied him in many other diplomatic missions throughout the world, and during their service on the islands of Fiji, Regina was again active in her humanitarian work, helping the local population. Before the outbreak of World War II, they were interned by Japan. Regina died in exchange of diplomats between Japan and America on July 23, 1942. She was buried at sea.
The First World War is in some way was a culmination of the desperate state that affected the population of the Balkans at the beginning of the 20th century. In addition to military actions, the mobility of the military forces helped to spread infectious diseases that were far more destructive than bombs and bullets. Part of the disasters were mitigated thanks to individuals who, unfortunately, today are mostly forgotten, whether they came from the local population or through a foreign mission. Today, we can barely see monuments raised in their honor, and no texts can be found in the textbooks, which on the other hand glorify the rulers and the generals. This short work is a little effort in the direction of correcting that injustice, with hope that the work of the “Angels of Bitola” will not be forgotten.