NORTH SALEM, N.Y.— While Croton Falls resident Phyllis Swidorski waited for the Somers Ambulance Corps to come to the aid of an injured child, she realized that North Salem really ought to have its own emergency services. The year was 1969.
A small group, described by Swidorski as “just housewives,” got together and began to contact possible benefactors. The North Salem Lions Club took a serious interest, located a used Cadillac ambulance for sale by the Bedford Fire Department, purchased the vehicle and presented it to the newly formed North Salem Volunteer Ambulance Corps (NSVAC).
“It was tough at the beginning,” says Swidorski by telephone from her home in Minnesota. It took six months to “get on the road.” Although there were about 50 members, some of them couldn’t stand the sight of blood, so they babysat while others went to the scene. Members worked 12-hour shifts. “You were virtually chained to the phone in those days. If you had to be in the kitchen, for example, you needed a longer cord.”
Swidorski recalls the Caddy as “the best ambulance we ever had. It had a lot of room, enough for four patients. I-684 was new at that time. We covered it from Brewster to Lewisboro. If there was an accident, sometimes there was more than one patient.”
It took the NSVAC ambulance a long time to find a permanent home. Charter member Pat Hitchcock remembers when they headquartered in the basement of the Hygrade Market (now Gordon’s DeliCafe). “When it rained, it flooded and we had to slosh through the water to get to the ambulance.” For a while it was parked at the cider mill at Haight’s Orchards (now Hardscrabble Farm) and also in the Front Street storefront that now houses Heritage Fuel.
One day in 1971, John Caralyus, who had just moved from the Bronx to Purdys, went to buy some milk at Grey’s Market opposite the Purdys Post Office where he ran into Bill Young. Young approached him and said, “We need members — sign here!” So Caralyus went back home and announced, “I’m in the ambulance corps.” Caralyus says he felt a little out of place when he moved from the teeming Bronx to “little old Purdys” but he got to know a lot of people very quickly, thanks to the NSVAC.
The ladies of the NSVAC were among the first to learn emergency medical skills, says founding member Eileen Haight, now living in North Carolina. The course was taught by physicians at Northern Westchester Hospital. “There were no paramedics back then. They were reluctant to teach us CPR because we weren’t doctors and nurses. Now almost everybody knows it.”
The NSVAC is constantly in need of funds and benefits are held regularly. Caralyus recalls that years ago as many as 300 people would turn out for the annual Christmas fundraiser at Bloomerside. Sheila Petersen, founder of Friends of Karen, was in charge. Volunteers were required to bring the food, like “around 25 potatoes, baked, wrapped in aluminum foil, arranged in a cardboard box and covered with newspaper. If you didn’t bring them, she wouldn’t let you in.”
Hitchcock remembers making house-to-house calls in search of donations. When she knocked at the home of I Love Lucy co-star, Vivian Vance, the actress couldn’t come to the door but promised to mail in a contribution — and she did.
Thanks to donations from many sources, including the North Salem Chamber of Commerce, the NSVAC was able to purchase its own property on Daniel Road in 1973. It took years to accumulate enough money for the construction of the NSVAC headquarters.
Today the all-purpose building is a nucleus for the town in times of emergency, such as Hurricane Sandy, where water, warmth, sleeping accommodations and food were provided by corps members and thoughtful neighbors. Shelter was even given to stranded motorists along I-684. In addition, the building hosts Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) classes and monthly NSVAC meetings and offers its meeting room for rent to the public.
The number of NSVAC volunteers has fluctuated over the years. In 1986 a flyer was mailed to North Salem residents claiming that the corps would have to hire professional technicians due to lack of volunteer personnel.
The NSVAC currently faces a similar problem. New volunteers are welcomed with open arms. And you won’t be required to bring a box of hot potatoes. For more information, go to www.nsvac.org.