Q. I heard there was once a patient in an iron lung at St. Paul United Church of Christ in Belleville sometime in the 1940s. Is this true?
— J.E., of Belleville
A. Was it real? Or only a dream?
Seventy years later, Alice Jerome isn’t sure.
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Born in 1937, the Belleville woman remembers wandering the church halls one day in the mid-1940s when she spied this mechanical behemoth in one of the rooms. She says she entered, listened to the machine pump air in and out for a few moments and then quietly slipped out, never asking anyone about it again. So now, even though she recently spent more than two years compiling the church’s history for its 175th anniversary, she is uncertain whether it actually happened — or whether the nation’s fear of polio during that era wormed its way into a young girl’s nightmare.
I’m telling you this because I know that it was Alice’s relating the experience to you that prompted your question. But being a former medical writer, I was so fascinated by it that I have to throw it out there, because I figure if Alice doesn’t know, I’m probably going to have to smoke someone out of the woodwork who does. I’m hoping the family of this patient or perhaps a church member or worker sees this column and calls.
Alice still can describe the scene as if she were painting a picture of what was then St. Paul’s Evangelical & Reformed Church. (The United Church of Christ denomination didn’t start until 1957.)
“The old building that was our Sunday school building had a new facade on the front,” she said. “And as you went in that new new facade that was right off the sidewalk, you went to your right, up a flight of stairs and down a hallway that connected with the old building. That was our Sunday school rooms and they were old — 12-foot-high ceilings and big. So I was familiar with the church. I’d been there since I was 4 years old, very active in it, and I guess, for my age, very religious-minded compared to most kids.”
As she remembers it, she was about 8 or 9 and had just left a youth-group meeting on a Wednesday. She and several friends began walking around when she saw — or thinks she saw — something she has never forgotten.
“I walked past the first big room on my left, and here sitting in it was an iron lung,” she said. “It really interested me. I’ve always been an inquisitive type of person anyway — nosy or whatever.
“Anyway, I stood in the doorway — I remember that — and then I walked in. And there was a person — I don’t remember whether it was a woman or a man — and it was pumping. (An iron lung helps a patient breathe by constantly changing the air pressure in the chamber in which the patient lies.) And I stood there and watched. I don’t remember anybody talking to me or what they said. I guess I was too engrossed in the whole thing.
“But down through the years, nothing more was ever said. And I never went back up there for the longest time. No, I’ve never talked about it with anybody else because I thought they’d think I was crazy. So I’ve wondered all these years what that was about or whether I really did see it.”
She certainly can’t blame it on one of the most popular sources of modern-day nightmares.
“If I had seen it on TV the night before and gone to bed, I would have said, ‘Well, I dreamt it,’” she said. “But there was no TV back then. Yes, I probably saw a picture now and then in the newspaper, but even those were scarce because they didn’t sensationalize things back then like they do now.”
If it was real, she has a couple of theories.
“Now, we had our janitors — husband and wife I think they were at the time,” she said. “They lived in that part of the building. Maybe it was one of their family members — or maybe it was someone from a little house in Belleville that didn’t have room for the iron lung and we took them in. I don’t know how many people in Belleville were affected at the time with it or whether hospitals were out of room, because they were big, awkward-looking pieces of machinery. I have no idea.”
Unfortunately, one of my reference bibles — the WPA file at the Belleville Public Library, for which people were paid to go through every issue of every Belleville newspaper and list all the local stories — had ended about 1940, so there is no record of a polio patient or iron lung at St. Paul’s. Kelly Barbeau at St. Elizabeth’s in Belleville tells me she found a picture of the arrival of a new iron lung at the hospital in 1949, but nothing involving St. Paul’s. I have a couple of other calls out, but I doubt whether they’ll uncover anything.
So here’s hoping that this may open the floodgates to some local family’s long-buried memory. Otherwise, as Rod Serling might have said, we just may remain trapped in the Twilight Zone.
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Answer to Sunday’s trivia: For decades, people worked to improve on macadam (crushed rock) roads, because they were prone to rutting and generating dust. In 1901, Edgar Purnell Holley patented a material he called tarmacadam, which involved mixing tar, rock, cement, resin and pitch and then laying it down with a steamroller. People began calling it “tarmac” for short. Now, even though asphalt has supplanted the use of tar, people in many countries still call paved areas at airports “tarmacs” even though they often are made of concrete. In fact, Wick Airport in Scotland, built in the 1940s, may be one of the few airports that still have tarmac runways.