Polio volunteers were Twin Cities heroes

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There are heroes among us.

Yes, we all know them. There are policemen and firemen who put their lives on the line every day. There are military veterans who risked everything around the world for the sake of family and friends at home.

Among those examples of selfless bravery, we should place a few young ladies in Lewiston more than 60 years ago who stood face to face with a deadly and terrifying threat. They were known as PEVs, or polio emergency volunteers.

Rose O’Brien, Lewiston Evening Journal reporter, opened her July 5, 1952, feature story with these words: “Polio is a subject most of us would like to forget. The word strikes a chill in people, but as most children and adults know, running away never got anybody anywhere, so the only thing to do about polio is to stand up and fight it. And that’s what the Polio Emergency Volunteers are doing.”

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Within a few days, Androscoggin County’s first PEV training course was to begin at Central Maine General Hospital in Lewiston. It was the third PEV unit in Maine, following Portland and Bangor.

“Polio emergencies are always sudden because polio strikes lightning fast,” O’Brien wrote. She said the frightening factor about the disease was its rapid increase between 1948 and 1950. Its dangers were very real and not fully understood. Nevertheless, volunteers were stepping up for the classes.

Considering the widespread fears of polio’s terrible and unpredictable assault on America’s families at that time, it took tremendous courage to volunteer for duty. In terms of similar situations in the very recent past, think of volunteering to work at close quarters with Ebola. The need was urgent and it outweighed the hazard.

O’Brien said the women in the Androscoggin County group could come from a number of population segments, but mothers of young children were not likely to be chosen. It wasn’t because of a danger, but rather it was felt that young mothers had all they could do in family duties, leaving too little free time to give to the training.

The course called for 20 to 26 hours of training specific to polio treatments.
The primary effort was to free up medical personnel as the pressures of polio containment increased throughout the nation.

Polio emergency volunteers were a trained corps of women who learned about recognizing polio and the various stages of treatment. The training included function of the iron lung, which was the name given to large full-body respirators.

The volunteers also learned to prepare and handle hot packs, a primary treatment at the time. They had to use forceps. The hot packs were too hot to touch with bare hands. The all-important hot packs had to be measured, cut and prepared for heating in an apparatus that looked like a tall pressure cooker. Heat was a key part of polio treatment and volunteers also learned to operate “lamps and bakers.” They learned proper care for paralyzed patients who needed specific bed arrangements.

Eleanor Melledy, director of nursing at CMG Hospital, and Frederick G. Taintor, chairman of Androscoggin County Infantile Paralysis, were key organizers of the local training program. Claire Milton, R.N., and Mabel Hill, R.N., are two of the instructors named in O’Brien’s story.

From the mid-1940s and well into the 1950s, polio was a dreaded disease. The early polio emergency volunteers in Wyoming and Pennsylvania were given credit for containing epidemic outbreaks. In 1945, when the program began, 2,000 women answered the call. Within six years, trainees nationwide numbered 40,000.

The volunteers wore a neat blue insignia on the pocket or sleeve of their uniform, O’Brien said. On the side of the small badge were the letters PEV embroidered in white, and in the center, also in white silk lettering, were the words “Fight Infantile Paralysis.”

It’s likely that some uniforms with that insignia are hanging in closets in the Twin Cities or surrounding area. Let’s hope they are brought out for proud display to family members and the community. They belonged to hometown heroes during a critical and challenging period of our history.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to davidsargent607@gmail.com.

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