The Charlotte Observer, Robert Lahser/AP
Martha Mason receives a kiss from childhood friend Ann Sipe.

Iron Will Overcomes Iron Lung

May 05, 2009 07:00 PM
by Emily Coakley
Some people have been confined to an iron lung after surviving polio, but as the life of Martha Mason illustrates, the machine didn’t stop them.

Achievements Despite Confinement

Martha Mason spent 60 years of her life in an iron lung after polio left her paralyzed at age 11 and killed her older brother. But Mason, who died Monday at the age of 71, achieved a great deal while confined to the machine.

“Martha was the most amazing example of what the human spirit is capable of despite all the adversity,” said her friend Charles Cornwell in an interview with the Charlotte Observer.

She lived in a small town in western North Carolina, and got degrees from Gardner-Webb College and Wake Forest University. At Wake Forest, she was first in her class and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

“Mason and her parents lived on campus, where she stayed in her room and listened to class lectures through an intercom system,” the newspaper reported.

She wrote a book about her life with the help of a voice activated computer. “Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung,” was published in 2003.

Fewer than 20 people are still living in an iron lung, the Charlotte Observer reported. Although some, like Mason, died of apparently natural causes, others’ lives have ended in tragedy.

Last year, 61-year-old Dianne Odell, who lived in an iron lung, died after the power went out in her Jackson, Tenn., home. A storm caused the power outage, and a backup generator failed to activate. According to the Los Angeles Times, her father and brother-in-law, “took turns pumping the iron lung manually.”

She had been confined to the iron lung since she was infected with polio at the age of 3, the newspaper said. Odell graduated high school by listening to classes through a specially installed intercom, received an honorary degree after taking classes at Freed-Hardeman University and wrote a children’s book. The Times described how the family devoted themselves to her care.

“The family never took vacations. At Christmas, they would squeeze Dianne, inside the metal machine, into the dining room for the holiday dinner,” the Times reported.

The Museum of American History has an online exhibit about the iron lung, and includes a video of Mark O’Brien, who survived polio and had to use an iron lung. In clips from the documentary “Breathing Lessons,” O’Brien is shown going to class and even crossing streets alone on a motorized stretcher.

Background: History of the iron lung

Philip Drinker created the first iron lung in 1927 with Louis Agassiz Shaw. The iron lung, or tank respirator, forces air in and out of a person’s lungs when that person needs help to breathe.

“The pump changed the pressure inside a rectangular, airtight metal box, pulling air in and out of the lungs,” according to the National Museum of American History. 

John Emerson, an inventor, later refined the iron lung and made it much less expensive to build, the museum exhibit says. In 1939, iron lungs were distributed on a mass scale, and within 20 years, 1,200 people were using them in America.

A University of Virginia Web page on the iron lung says, “the modern trachaeostomy tube and ventilation system replaces the iron lung and comparable respirators of the past,” but also says, “there is still some new demand for the device in emergency situations.”

It was developed to help patients with polio, a virus that has afflicted people for centuries. For many people, the polio virus is mild and may not produce symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic. But paralytic polio virus can cause people to lose the use of their legs or arms. If chest muscles are attacked, a person could lose the ability to breathe and die.

After a polio vaccine was developed, the disease was eradicated in America; children still get polio vaccines today. Polio is largely under control around the world, though it still flourishes in Afghanistan, Nigeria, India and Pakistan.

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