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Ripon Rotary showcases polio effort
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Allen Velthoen stands next to his 1922 Packard touring car entered in the car show at the Main Street Day celebration. - photo by GLENN KAHL/The Bulletin

Ripon Rotary has played its part in conquering polio.

Members told their story at the Ripon Chamber of Commerce’s Main Street Day.  On display next to their booth was a child-sized lung.

Ripon Rotary President Tim Reeves was fortunate to meet retired nurse Mary Sharp. She had worked in a polio ward in an East Coast hospital. On Saturday she walked up to Rotary’s information booth saying she had cared for polio victims in similar iron lungs for years.

The historical polio “iron lung” created its share of curiosity from the crowd at Ripon’s Annual Main Street Day from the young and the old.  Many who were born after the 1960s had little knowledge of what it was used for and how many lives of paralyzed victims it actually saved across the nation.

Children and teens were awed by the stories of hospital wards that held more than 100 lungs and the adults and children who had to be bathed and fed through the small portholes in the side of the unit that actually forced victims to breathe.  They also learned that parents feared letting their children go swimming or running in the sprinklers for fear of contracting the disease associated with water.

Rotary and the World Health Organization have all but eliminated the disease worldwide except for a few small Third World Countries where war creates logistical problems.

Sharp was a nurse at Boston City hospital in the mid-1950s when the polio epidemic was at its peak.  She remembers two little boys 10 to 12 years old in her care that she admired greatly for their spunk and will to live.  She said her greatest fear was which one she was going to save if there was an electrical outage.

“They got good care and they were a happy bunch,” she said.  “Some we could take out of their iron lung for just a little while.”

Sharp explained how the patients had to be hand bathed through the little 8-inch portholes in the side of the lung – the same opening that they were fed through.  Their heads protruded out the end of the lung’s housing and a slanted mirror was mounted above so they could see their parents or family members.

It was in the early 1960s with the advent of the Salk polio vaccine that the iron lungs became obsolete and were no longer needed in the U.S.  The Third World countries continued having epidemics. Rotary International service clubs have provided polio victims around the world with wheelchairs for the crawlers and other medical devices to help them get around. That is in addition to spending $1.3 billion in a bid to eradicate polio.

Sharp has retired in Ripon and lives in her own small apartment at Bethany Home on Main Street. Her family lives nearby.