AmericaMartha Lillard was unable to breathe on her own. Her 68 years of life depended on an ancient machine called the “iron lung”.
On June 8, 1953, Martha Lillard celebrated her 5th birthday with a party in an amusement park in Oklahoma. More than a week later, Lillard woke up with a sore throat and neck pain. The family took her to the hospital, and Lillard was diagnosed with polio.
Lillard spent six months in the hospital and was locked in a huge metal bucket. This is essentially a ventilator, likened to the “iron lung” that helps Lillard exchange oxygen. Lillard was one of the last people in the United States who still lived on iron lungs.
Poliomyelitis can be life-threatening and was once one of the most terrifying diseases in the world. By the late 1940s, it had an average of 35,000 disabled people in the United States each year.
The polio vaccine was widely used in 1955. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been no cases of polio in the United States since 1979. This disease has almost been eradicated. The World Health Organization (WHO) only recorded 175 cases of polio in 2019. The disease is currently only endemic in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Most patients with polio do not have obvious symptoms, but some severe cases can infect the brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis. Lillard’s breathing muscles were weakened by illness, so for the next seven years, she had to live on machines.
These “iron lungs” are huge ventilators, about 2.1 meters long. When the patient lies down, the whole body is inside, only the head is exposed. The bellows at the bottom of the device can complete the work of the human diaphragm. They generate negative pressure, which fills the user’s lungs with air, while positive pressure allows one to exhale.
68 years later, the iron lung still keeps Lillard alive. Although many people with polio syndrome will quit the machine or switch to another form of mechanical ventilation, Lillard is different from most people.
“I tried all forms of respiratory support, and iron lungs are the most effective, best, and most comfortable,” she said.
These ancient machines now appear more in museums than in homes. In the 1990s, when Lillard’s iron lung failed, she had to call a series of hospitals and museums, which may still exist. But most of them have thrown away or don’t want to give up their collection. She finally bought one from a man in Utah and has been using it till now.
Lillard was once trapped in an iron lung. A storm swept through, causing the house to lose power and the generators to not work, making her unable to get rid of the equipment.
“It feels like being buried alive, it’s scary,” Lillard said. She tried to call 911, but lost her signal in the storm. “I feel short of breath. I remember saying to myself aloud,’I won’t die’.”
Lillard finally received a cell phone signal and called for help, but the emergency personnel did not know what iron lungs were. Fortunately, they were able to start the generator for her.
Replacing machine parts is Lillard’s current main problem. The belt needs to be replaced every few weeks, the inner lining needs to be replaced every 6 months, and the motor needs to be replaced every 12 years or so.
Lillard’s most urgent need now is to replace the rubber diaphragm that forms an airtight seal around her neck. Each is valid for only a few months. She bought all the inventory from a place where it no longer produced it.
“This is the main difficulty I encountered,” Lillard said. “When they started to degrade, my breathing became difficult because more gas was leaking.”
Lillard only had a few rubber membranes left for his iron lungs. “I’m really desperate,” she said. “The scariest thing in my life now is that I can no longer find anyone who can make them.”
Currently, Lillard has spent a lot of time alone. She paints, watches old Hollywood movies, and takes care of her dog. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she was largely isolated from the world, and only at night could she see her sister Cindy and brother-in-law Darryl.
Affected by early polio, Lillard cannot have all the life experiences that other people have. She taught herself at home for most of her childhood and was unable to participate in most extracurricular activities. She still remembered how eager she was to go camping with her brothers and sisters. Due to physical limitations, she is unable to have children or has a stable job.
Despite her limited life experience, Lillard is grateful to her childhood friend Karen Rapp for teaching her to appreciate small things. Together they observe the ants and build small villages with grass. And she was also grateful for her iron lung.
“It keeps me alive, it heals me. It keeps me breathing all day. I think this machine is like a friend, a close friend,” she said.
Wu Huang (follow NPR)