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She talks so that you can barely hear her, she talks on the exhale, because she cannot talk on the inhale. which means that her sentences are interrupted fifteen times each minute, for the breathing machine to make her breathe, which makes conversations with her quite leisurely, long pauses in the sentences, and everyone learns to be patient....
Lorenzo Wilson Milam, writing about his sister, 1984
What is an Iron Lung?
No device is more associated with polio than the tank respirator, better known as the iron lung. Physicians who treated people in the acute, early stage of polio saw that many patients were unable to breathe when the virus’s action paralyzed muscle groups in the chest. Death was frequent at this stage, but those who survived usually recovered much or almost all of their former strength.
Nothing worked well in keeping people breathing until 1927, when Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw at Harvard University devised a version of a tank respirator that could maintain respiration artificially until a person could breathe independently, usually after one or two weeks. The machine was powered by an electric motor with two vacuum cleaners. The pump changed the pressure inside a rectangular, airtight metal box, pulling air in and out of the lungs.
Inventor John Emerson had refined Drinker’s device and cut the cost nearly in half. Inside the tank respirator, the patient lay on a bed (sometimes called a “cookie tray”) that could slide in and out of the cylinder as needed. The side of the tank had portal windows so attendants could reach in and adjust limbs, sheets, or hot packs.
- The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis began mass distribution of tank respirators in 1939.
- In the 1930s, an iron lung cost about $1,500—the average price of a home.
- In 1959, there were 1,200 people using tank respirators in the United States; in 2004, there were 39
There was a tremendous psychological element at work in all of us in our relationship to the lung. The metal respirator assumed an almost animate personality and became a symbol of protection and security…. We were incomplete embryos in a metal womb.
Larry Alexander, 1954
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“We hope the oxygen will keep you breathing on your own,” he continued. “If not, a respirator will help you.” I looked where he pointed, and a wave of horror poured over me as I realized: respirator was another name for what was popularly called an “iron lung.” I thought it would be like being in a coffin while you were still alive. Now an iron lung loomed beside my bed, hoses hanging like tentacles, a gray octopus ready to swallow me at any moment.
Peg Kehret, 1996
Grasping for straws is easier;
You can see the straws.
“This most excellent canopy, the air, look you,”
Presses down upon me
At fifteen pounds per square inch,
A dense, heavy, blue-glowing ocean,
Supporting the weight of condors
That swim its churning currents.
All I get is a thin stream of it,
A finger’s width of the rope that ties me to life
As I labor like a stevedore to keep the connection.
Water wouldn’t be so circumspect;
Water would crash in like a drunken sailor,
But air is prissy and genteel,
Teasing me with its nearness and pervading immensity.
The vast, circumambient atmosphere
Allows me but ninety cubic centimeters
Of its billions of gallons and miles of sky.
I inhale it anyway,
Knowing that it will hurt
In the weary ends of my crumpled paper bag lungs.
Mark O’Brien, 1988
Patents for the Benefit of All
In the 1930s, Philip Drinker and Harvard University (where Drinker was a faculty member) took John Emerson to court, claiming he had infringed on patent rights by altering Drinker’s iron lung design. Emerson defended himself by making the case that such lifesaving devices should be freely available to all.
Years later, when Jonas Salk was asked whether he would patent his polio vaccine and make a fortune, he replied that the vaccine belonged to everyone, making the comparison, “How could you patent the sun?”
The principle of the bed was simple. When my head was up, my feet down, my internal organs were pulled by gravity, pulling my diaphragm with them and sucking air into my lungs. When my position was reversed … air was forced out of my lungs.
Larry Alexander, 1954
After only a couple of days of hot packs, my muscles started to relax. Up until then, my muscles were as tight as the strings in a tennis racket. When your muscles are that tight, you can’t move anything.
Edmund Sass, 1996
But for patients dependent on them to breathe, the old iron lungs were gradually replaced with modern ventilators.Does an iron lung work like a ventilator? ›
The iron lung provided negative pressure ventilation which is very similar to the manner which we naturally breathe. However, the design of the iron lung made it very difficult to care for patients and it could not support patients with other types of lung disease such as severe pneumonia.What did they use the iron lung? ›
A medical miracle made of metal helped polio sufferers to breathe in the 1900s. The tank respirator, or iron lung, reads like a medical curiosity in modern times thanks to vaccines for the polio virus created by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin in the 1950s and 1960s.Does anyone still use an iron lung? ›
In the 1950s, thousands of people suffering from polio relied on tank respirators for their survival. Twelve thousand people in the U.S. with paralytic polio used iron lungs to help them breathe in 1959. By 2004, it was 39. Today just two people in the U.S. remain reliant on the large breathing machines.How do you use the bathroom in an iron lung? ›
How the patients would use the bathroom? The front part of the iron lung where the patient's head comes out attaches to the “tin can” and can be unbuckled and pulled out, thus exposing the patient's body on the bed. He is lifted up by a nurse and a bedpan is slid under him.Is hyperbaric chamber the same as an iron lung? ›
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy might look like something out of “Star Trek,” or similar to the iron lung, but it's a treatment for much simpler conditions that has made a world of difference for a Killeen man.How long do you have to be in an iron lung? ›
Most people used the iron lung for a few weeks or months depending on the intensity of the polio attack. However, those with chest muscles permanently paralyzed by the disease need it for their lifetime. To help people rebuild strength in their chest muscles, therapists employed a variety of treatments.What is the longest time someone has been in an iron lung? ›
Meet longest surviving iron lung patient kept alive by a machine for 70 years | Guinness World Records.Why don t they use the iron lung anymore? ›
The reason we don't see iron lungs anymore is because of polio vaccines, which were first developed in the 1950s. The vaccines were so effective in protecting people from polio that in 1988, the world decided to eradicate the disease.How many people are still in an iron lung? ›
The medical device allowed them to breathe by creating negative pressure through a vacuum, which forced the lungs to expand. Today, Alexander is thought to be one of only two people still using an iron lung, reports the Guardian.
In the early 1950s, before the polio vaccine was introduced, the iron lung enabled hundreds of people to survive the debilitating disease. The massive metal machine encased patients, using air pressure to do the work of their paralyzed diaphragms and help them breathe.Who is the oldest polio survivor? ›
Marguerite Scarry, who is still going strong at the age of 99, is currently the oldest living polio survivor in the world. Scarry's story was brought to our attention when her great-niece, Patricia Spencer, sent us an email and included newspaper clippings about Scarry's miraculous story.How do you eat in an iron lung? ›
You can eat in the iron lung because your head is outside but the rest of your body is inside, although since you are flat on your back you really need to be careful when you swallow; you have to swallow in rhythm with the machine because it's pulling your diaphragm in and then pushing it out again.How much did iron lung cost? ›
The side of the tank had portal windows so attendants could reach in and adjust limbs, sheets, or hot packs. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis began mass distribution of tank respirators in 1939. In the 1930s, an iron lung cost about $1,500—the average price of a home.How many polio victims are still in iron lungs? ›
Only 10 Americans were left using an iron lung in 2014, The Post said. Paul Alexander is now just one of two Americans that remain on the machine, and he wants to share his story, the Guardian reports.Are iron lungs still manufactured? ›
In the worst cases, people's breathing muscles stopped working, and they were placed in an iron lung, a large machine that encapsulated their entire bodies from the neck down. As vaccines became available, cases dropped, and gradually, iron lungs became obsolete. The last ones were manufactured in the late 1960s.When were iron lungs phased out? ›
In 1959, there were 1,200 people using iron lungs in the U.S., but by 2017, there were only three. Due to the near eradication of polio in most of the world with Jonas Salk's vaccine in 1952, the use of iron lungs is largely obsolete.