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The American Epidemics, The Medical Community

Quote. I am in a ward with some thirty-five boys. I am almost the oldest, and certainly the sickest. I donÝt talk to anyone Í I am so blasted out of myself. I canÝt figure out what has happened to me Í and here I am in the football-field-length medical ward with noise from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., nonstop. End Quote. ˝Lorenzo Wilson Milam, early 1950s

Throughout most of the 20th century, hospitals operated under strict and orderly patient regimens. Nurses enforced a military-like discipline in the wards. Epidemic conditions, combined with the lack of a cure for polio, heightened everyone’s anxiety.

During a 1934 epidemic in Los Angeles, 5 percent of doctors and 11 percent of nurses who treated polio patients contracted the disease.

Left photo. Toomey Pavilion doctors and nurses
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Right photo. Masked doctors examine a patient in a polio ward
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Left: Doctors and nurses on the hospital steps, Toomey Pavilion, Cleveland, Ohio, 1955 Courtesy of Post-Polio Health International
Right: Doctors wearing protective masks as they examine a patient in a polio ward, Hickory, North Carolina, 1944 Courtesy of Marc Shell

“In no disease, except perhaps pneumonia, is expert nursing care so essential.”
—Dr. T. Campbell Thompson, 1938

“The nurses caring for patients in iron lungs had to be attuned to their respiratory needs at all times to keep them alive, which meant being with the patient physically and psychically. Decisions had to be made regarding suctioning, postural drainage, giving oxygen, and the need for emergency tracheostomy, and nurses had to make these minute-to-minute decisions.”
—Lynne Dunphy, family nurse practitioner, 2001

Left photo. Doctors sit in front of a tent
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Right photo. Sign stating, notice all visitors must receive permission to enter ward area, on a tree in front of tents
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Left: Doctors resting outside a tent during the epidemic at Hickory, North Carolina, 1944 Courtesy of Marc Shell
Right: Emergency hospital tents erected during the epidemic at Hickory, North Carolina, 1944 Courtesy of Marc Shell

“In the town of Hickory, in the western foothills of North Carolina, more than 100 children lie in hastily built beds…. The suddenness with which the disease struck overwhelmed ordinary medical facilities…. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis mobilized local and national resources to set up the emergency hospital.”
LIFE magazine, 1944

 Photo of polio iron lung ward
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Polio iron lung ward at Haynes Memorial Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, 1955

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