What It’s Like to Be In an Iron Lung


While the United
States of America has been polio-free
since 1979, the disease had devastating effects on
those unfortunate enough to contract it before the
vaccine was discovered in the 1950s. One of the more severe-sounding
treatments available was a staycation in a medical
contraption called the iron lung. Daunting as it might sound,
occupants in the lung described the experience
as, you know, mostly OK. Today, we’re looking at what it
was like to be in an iron lung. But before we do be sure to
subscribe to the Weird History Channel, and let us know
what archaic technology you would like to hear about. Now breathe deeply. We’re going in. [SUBDUED MUSIC] Polio weakens the
nervous system. And while many exposed to the
virus experience no symptoms, there are the unfortunate
others who experience fever, stomach upset, and pain. Extremely rare cases
of polio, however, that target the spine
and brainstem can lead to the real nasty stuff– numbness, stiffness,
and even paralysis. A vaccine for the malady
developed in the 1950s by Jonas Salk eradicated
most cases of polio in our modern era. But in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries, few treatments were
available for people affected with the disease. Today, only three countries– Pakistan, Afghanistan,
and Nigeria– have never stopped
transmission of polio. The urban growth of the
post-industrial revolution led to an outbreak of
polio, with reports of 10,000 cases
a year, thousands of which proved fatal. The disease seemed to
hit babies, children, and the elderly the
hardest, and doctors were left with
few options on how to help victims of
the disease breathe once the virus had paralyzed
their chests and abdomens. Enter Harvard University
researchers Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz
Shaw, Jr. The two developed a device to keep
victims of polio breathing long enough to recover. The tanker respirator was made
using things typically found around the house– an electronic motor, vacuum
cleaners, and a sealed iron box. It’s like a sous vide, but
for miraculous medical devices that could save thousands. The negative pressure device
forced the patient’s lungs to take in air whether the
polio virus liked it or not. So was it as terrible as
it sounds, the iron lung? Well– [WHIMSICAL MUSIC] In 1930, Popular
Mechanics magazine described the process of being
entered into an iron lung. “The patient is placed
on the sliding bed, shoved into the cabinet, and
the shield tightly locked. A rubber collar,
which fits so snugly that almost no air
can pass, is adjusted around the patient’s neck. A switch is turned on, and
the cabinet begins to work.” Claustrophobia just kicked in
for half our viewers just now. Keep in mind, patients
entering an iron lung were normally too sick to be
extra choosy about their living quarters. But testimonials
from polio survivors made the experience sound
like, hey, I survived polio. Michael Barr, iron lung
resident during the 1970s, said, “The relief of not
having a respirator on my mouth and just lying flat on my back
with the breathing taking over was quite relaxing. It was restful because
there wasn’t much for you to do in the iron lung. You would normally just shut
your eyes and go to sleep.” [LIVELY MUSIC] Victims of polio who were
confined to an iron lung were determined to live
full lives despite living in a tin can hug. Take Martha Mason,
author of Breath– A Lifetime in the
Rhythm of an Iron Lung. She went to college,
hosted dinner parties, read more books than you
or me, after getting online in the mid-’90s, made countless
friends despite being reliant on a breathing machine. She didn’t let that deter her
from living a very full life. Neither did Paul
Alexander, who told CBC Radio he adapted his
lifestyle to the iron lung or could make the iron
lung adapt to his desires. Alexander talked that talk
and graduated from law school. Being confined to an iron
lung didn’t stop people from living full lives, mainly
because you weren’t necessarily confined to anything. The medical device was meant
as a stop-in for patients having difficulty
breathing after paralysis of the upper body due to polio. Typically, a stay
in an iron lung was a brisk two weeks,
allowing the body ample time to recover fully
from the disease. The iron lung could be
revisited on a need-to-use basis indefinitely in more severe
cases, where breathing was hindered permanently
or after complications from post-polio syndrome. And yes, a very small
handful still do to this day. Our buddy attorney
Paul Alexander took his iron lung
with him to college. It became like a
party trick to him. Paul gained tons of friends,
who all wanted to find out what the deal was with a guy
with his head sticking out of a machine. Drinker and Shaw tested out
their lifesaving medical device initially on our world’s
most precious creatures, the common housecat. But soon, they needed to test
the device on human subjects. In 1928, they used their device
to help an eight-year-old girl suffering from
infantile paralysis at Children’s
Hospital in Boston. After just a few
minutes, she was able to breathe
using the machine. John Emerson then invented a
lighter, more efficient version of the lung that was soon
available in major cities, with children’s hospitals
like Philly and Chicago, where entire rooms were devoted
to house iron lungs in order to treat multiple
patients at once. [WHIMSICAL MUSIC] With most great inventions
come inevitable improvements and drama, and the iron
lung was no exception. In 1931, John
Emerson, an inventor from Cambridge,
Massachusetts, improved upon the bed of the
device, lovingly referred to as the “cookie
tray,” and spruced up the place by adding
little windows to the sides of its fuselage. He also cut the cost
of the machine by half and lightened it significantly
as well for good measure. Basically, he was
Justin Timberlake in The Social Network telling
fake Mark Zuckerberg to drop the “the” in The Facebook.com. But Drinker didn’t
see it that way and sued him for improving
on his design like a jerk. Emerson argued that
Drinker shouldn’t have been allowed a
patent on something that could save human lives. He also claimed to have
worked on the design before the patent was
received by Drinker in 1931, and furthermore, said the
technology predated the Harvard researchers. So technically, Drinker
couldn’t maintain rights over individual
components of the machine. And then Drinker
was probably all, “If you were the inventor
of the iron lung, you would have invented
the iron lung,” all smug. Emerson made a better
case, and in the end, won, nullifying Drinker’s
patent and becoming the gold standard of lung
model design moving forward. [UPBEAT MUSIC] When Drinker brought the
iron lung onto the market, he charged about $3,600. The price was eventually
lowered once Emerson pounced and brought a cheaper,
better design into the fold. But even then, he
was charging $1,500 and took royalties
on each one sold. Emerson’s sleeker design
was still pretty pricey, costing a chunky
$1,000 per machine, pricing out the
plebeians and causing most iron lungs to land,
understandably, in hospitals. The 1930s were notoriously
not the greatest time to be alive in America. And after massive
unemployment, very few could afford the device
during the Great Depression. Eventually, Franklin
D. Roosevelt founded the National Foundation
for Infantile Paralysis, renamed in 1938 to
the March of Dimes– yes, that March of Dimes. And that organization
took the lead in helping those
suffering with polio to pay for the medical care
they needed to survive, including access
to the iron lung. [ROCK MUSIC] As more and more people
spent time in the lung, more and more people
came up with unique ways to pass and enjoy the time. Some installed mirrors
into the device to keep up with the
world around them. Gary Presley, who contracted
polio at the age of 17, paired his mirror
with a television, which he claimed taught
him how to read in reverse. Presley, along with polio
survival Marshall Barr, also had frames
installed above the head to hold books and other
reading materials, though Barr didn’t
much see the advantage, since pages still had to be
turned somehow without arms. Author Mark O’Brien
found a way around this. He used a foot-long
stick to communicate, turn pages, move nearby
tables, and, you know, all the fun stuff you
do to pass the time. [ACOUSTIC MUSIC] A foot-long stick can’t
help you put a foot-long sub in your mouth, however. So lung living meant
relying on others for basic everyday
needs, like eating food or changing clothes. Since the head is exposed,
you can eat in a lung, but swallowing can
be a bit tricky, as Marshall Barr pointed out. Since a person was
flat on their back, they really needed
to be careful when swallowing– swallow in
rhythm with the machine, because it’s pulling
on the diaphragm and then pushing it out again. Patients had to wait until
the iron lung breathed out to swallow. Sounds methodical. Jim Costello
remembers the process and the attendants who changed
his clothes less than fondly. “Changing my pajamas
or the sheets was carried out by a team of
nurses, who had everything prepared beforehand. They would work very quickly
to do what was necessary, monitoring me carefully. It would take a number of
sessions of opening the lung and pulling my stretcher bed in
and out to get the task done. It was a nightmare.” Gary Presley had a different
experience with food and morale in the lung, figuring
if living required being locked in a metal tube,
maybe living wasn’t for him. With his body deteriorating
and an overall decline in physical activity,
he didn’t want to eat. According to his own testimonial
in his book Seven Wheelchairs– A Life Beyond Polio,
“Canned in the iron lung, I had become a withering,
wasting mass of insecurities, apprehensions, and depression. The desiccated body housed
in the great machine needed minimum fuel, and minimum
fuel produces little waste. I don’t remember
refusing to eat. I simply didn’t care. I remember spoons
pressed against my lip, but I did not take them. I was not hungry.” Patients had to learn
how to rely on others to tend to the most
basic of human needs. Arms were confined inside a
chamber that worked mostly by remaining nice and sealed. Opening the portal
windows along the sides to move an arm and a leg or
apply hot packs to an achy body could lead to
respiratory distress. Patients had to be helped
to use the bathroom. Sounds like a great experience
overall for everyone involved. [MAN SCREAMS] Earlier, when we
mentioned attorney-at-law, Paul Alexander, hauling his
iron lung in his dorm room, we probably should
have mentioned that these bad boys weighed
hundreds of pounds, not exactly the most convenient
thing to rely on to live. These life-saving metal
miracles comprised of tubes, motors, and metal
weighed up to 800 pounds. The size and scope
of this guy made things tricky in portability
and accessibility and contributed to the stigma
of being treated by one. When Peg Kehret thought about
her life in an iron lung after getting
polio in her youth, she burst into
tears at the thought of living in the
device she called “a gray octopus ready to
swallow me at any moment.” Understandable. I think we’d all
burst into tears at the prospect of being eaten
alive by a giant sea creature. For others, though,
like Larry Alexander, he welcomed his new
overlord the iron lung. He saw his new living
quarters as, sure, “monstrous,” but also as
“angels of salvation.” The weight of the iron
lung was nothing compared to the unbearable
weight of his chest, he felt, before being
put in the machine. [UPBEAT MUSIC] Over time, the iron
lung was reworked with new technology that allowed
for a sleeker and cheaper design. Since the iron lung was a
negative pressure ventilator, meaning it works by lowering
pressure around the lung cells, it required bulky,
clunky machine designs. Positive pressure
ventilators, however, raise the pressure
in the airways, which can be accomplished with
much more compact tubes and nasal or facial masks. The 1950s and ’60s brought
changes to our nation as a whole but also to the lung. Negative pressure machines
were whittled down to be less bulky and more
like body armor or jackets. Positive pressure
technology also led to greater
use of face masks. Once polio vaccines lowered the
number of cases substantially, the demand for the iron lung
decreased along with it. 1,200 people in
the United States were using iron lungs in
1959 compared to 39 in 2004 and perhaps as little
as three people by 2017. People still experiencing
complications from polio still find the negative pressure
machine to work best for them, even though parts for the lung
are becoming increasingly rare. Parts for mostly
antiquated medical devices aren’t easily found on eBay. So how do you feel
about the iron lung? Let us know in the
comments below. And while you’re at it, check
out some of these other videos from our Weird History.

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