In 1952, the U.S. had the worst outbreak of polio in the nation’s history. Parents were so frightened by the terrifying disease that public places like pools and theaters were shut down. Even schools were closed over fear of transmission. In total, there were approximately 58,000 cases reported that year. Out of those cases, 21,269 were paralyzed and there were 3,145 reported deaths.
Polio, or Poliomyelitis, is a highly contagious virus that can be potentially life-threatening. In most cases, people who contract polio will at most experience some flu-like symptoms, which will clear up within a week. In cases where the virus attacks the brain and spinal cord, the virus can lead to complete paralysis and death. Children under the age of five are particularly susceptible to the virus.
In 1955, Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine that was enormously successful. The last reported case of polio in the United States was in 1979. “It was hailed as a medical miracle and the excitement about it was really unparalleled as far as health history in the United States,” Jay Wenger, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s polio eradication effort, told Gizmodo.
There are still a handful of reported polio cases in developing countries. Last year, there were only 37 known cases of polio in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, as conflicts in these areas interrupted the vaccination process. Currently in the United States, there are between 350,000 to 500,000 polio survivors, says Brian Tiburzi, executive director of the Post-Polio Health International (PPHI). Out of those numbers, there are only a handful of survivors who are completely dependent on a machine called an iron lung.
An iron lung is a negative pressure ventilator that forces the lungs to contract and expand by creating a vacuum inside the chamber. They were first used in the 1920s, and in most of cases would only need to be used for a couple of weeks or months until the patient could breathe on their own. Actress Mia Farrow spent eight months inside an iron lung after contracting polio when she was nine, but made a full recovery. But, for those unfortunate patients who developed full respiratory paralysis, they would need to depend on an iron lung for the rest of their lives.
Paul Alexander, 70, of Dallas, TX., contracted polio when he was six-years-old in 1952. “I began to feel a little bit ill,” he told Gizmodo. “When mom saw my face, she knew … Over the next five days, I lost everything – couldn’t move, couldn’t walk. And finally, the last day, I couldn’t breathe. My diaphragm was gone, destroyed. My body muscles were gone, destroyed. Which left me in the iron lung for the rest of my life.”
Paul is fully reliant on a full-time caretaker and he can only leave the machine for a few hours each day.When he is out of the iron lung, Paul needs to consciously think about breathing, which leaves him exhausted. Despite this, Paul is an incredibly accomplished man. He wet to law school and became a trial lawyer. He is currently working on his memoir, which he is typing out with an apparatus that his caretaker puts in his mouth.
Martha Lillard, 69, of Oklahoma City, was diagnosed with polio in 1952 when she was five-years-old. She spends about half of her day in the machine, the other half of the day she uses a positive-pressure ventilator to push air into her lungs. However, she finds it far more comfortable in her iron lung. She once had dreams of becoming a ballerina one day, but now she sees her life as a type of dance. “I think now of my life as a ballet,” she said. I have to balance so many things. It’s a phenomenal amount of energy I have to use to coordinate everything in my life,” she said.
Mona Randolph, 81, of Kansas City, Mo., contracted polio in 1956 when she was 20-years-old. After going to rehab, she was able to function without the iron lung. But, 20 years later, a number of lung infections caused her to rely on the iron lung once again. Mona jokingly refers to her iron lung as her “yellow submarine.”She is well enough to only have to use it while she sleeps. “I approach it with relief in store at night and thankfully leave it with relief in the morning,” she said.
All three of these patients have one common fear: the continued maintenance of their iron lungs. Iron lungs are relics from the past, and the parts needed to uphold them are no longer manufactured. In 2004, the company that was responsible for iron lung upkeep, Philips Respironics, told the few remaining iron lung users that they could no longer guarantee that they would service their life-support machines.
In 2015, Paul Alexander’s friend uploaded a video to YouTube explaining Paul’s situation in the hope that someone would come forward and help him maintain the device. “They have stopped making parts for iron lungs quite a while ago,” his friend wrote in the caption of the video. “Even though people who die give him their iron lungs he can’t fix any of them because the same part has worn out in all of them. Anyone who lives near Dallas, TX, with machine shop skills and tools could probably fix it.”
All three of the survivors live in fear that power outages will cause their iron lungs to stop functions. In 2008, Dianne Odell from Memphis, Tenn., passed away after a storm caused her iron lung to lose power. Her father and brother-in-law took turns manually pumping the iron lung, but they couldn’t maintain the flow of air in Odell’s lungs.
Thankfully for Paul Alexander, his video reached someone who could help him maintain his iron lung. Brady Richards, who is the director of the Environmental Testing Laboratory, decided to help him out. “I looked for years to find someone who knew how to work on iron lungs,” Paul said. “Brady Richards, it’s a miracle that I found him.”
As for Mona, her husband Mark is a skilled engineer and her cousin was an aircraft mechanic, and they help her maintain the machine.
Martha has a friend who helps her maintain the device, but the biggest concern for all three of the iron lung patients is the lack of parts. Martha is most concerned about the spiral collar that creates a seal around her neck. Philips Respironics won’t sell her any more replacements because they only have 10 left. She hopes that someone will be able to engineer one for her. When asked what would happen if she couldn’t get a replacement soon, she replied, “Well, I die.”
All three of these survivors are living testaments to the importance of vaccinating. Richard Bruno, director of the International Center for Polio Education, says that if any of those 37 polio-infected individuals mentioned earlier were to travel to a popular anti-vaccination area like Orange County, Calif., we could be looking at another polio epidemic.
Paul, Martha and Mona are all terrified at the prospect of the disease that ravaged their lives possibly making a comeback because of anti-vaxxers.
“I would just do anything to prevent somebody from having to go through what I have,” Martha says. “I mean, my mother, if she had the vaccine available, I would have had it in a heartbeat.”