Conscious Aging: An Iron Lung

I’m flabbergasted, really, to read that three people who survived polio as children before there were vaccines stay alive even today with the help of a very old technology: an iron lung.

You have to be a certain age even to know what an iron lung might be. It’s a metal tube, a negative pressure ventilator, that encases the whole body except for the head, which sticks out the end. There’s a seal around the neck to keep air from escaping, not so tight of course to strangle the person. The three iron lungs still in use are cobbled together from old parts and kept going by jerry-rigged motors. Nobody makes iron lungs any more. Nobody makes parts for them, or receives training in how to repair them.

Martha Lillard is 69, and had polio as a child. Here is her description of the device that keeps her alive:

“Her iron lung has portholes and windows on the side; a pressure gauge at the top. The machine is actually cobbled together from two iron lungs. One, the March of Dimes gave her when she was a child. The other, she bought from someone in Utah, after she haggled him down from $25,000 to $8,000. The body has also been modified over the years. Her grandfather invented a motorized pulley system that closes the bed tray into the tank after she climbs in. He also replaced the brushed aluminum mirror above the neck slot with a real mirror so that she could have a clear view to the rest of the room when she’s locked in the canister. A local engineer used a motor from an old voter registration device to build a mechanism that tightens the collar around her neck after she slips her head through the portal. The fan belts and half-horsepower motor have been replaced about ten times.”

The worst polio outbreak in U.S.history happened in 1952, when I was seven. I vaguely recall how worried our mothers were, because no one really understood how polio is transmitted. Getting a chill was supposed to have something to do with it, so we were kept from swimming pools and lakes — although I don’t remember any interruption in the hours we spent in the chilly Atlantic ocean during summers at the Jersey shore. Being around crowds was considered a risk, so movies were frowned upon.

The Salk polio vaccine came into use in 1955, and the Sabin oral version in 1961. I seem to remember lining up in the auditorium at Roosevelt Elementary school and swallowing a sugar cube on which vaccine had been placed –but it couldn’t have been as late as 1961, as I’d have been well out of elementary school by then. I imagine I did get the Salk injection, but have no memory of it.

Polio is not entirely eradicated globally; there were 37 reported cases last year in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. There is some risk here in the U.S. from clusters of anti-vaxxers in places like Orange County, California. If an infected person visited family there, we could see a new outbreak of this highly infectious disease.

I can’t fathom being a responsible parent and not getting my child polio vaccine. If I had any doubts, a quick look at iron lungs lined up at the peak of the epidemic — you can see it in the article — would quickly change my mind.

2 thoughts on “Conscious Aging: An Iron Lung

  1. for Phyllis: One would think so. After all, there are lots of people who survived polio who may now have post-polio syndrome and need breathing assistance, and they surely all are not on iron lungs. Apparently, the ventilators we use now push air into the lungs, which is more stressful on lung tissue. The iron lung was a “negative pressure” device — apparently works differently. I’m not sure how. But these three souls are hanging on to their iron lungs for dear life.

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