The iron lung is an obsolete and somewhat archaic device in today’s modern world but back in the day, this was an innovative machine that saved many lives touched by the polio epidemic. An iron lung is essentially a tank respirator which works as a negative pressure ventilator, taking in air on one side of the machine and then reducing the pressure in the tank, forcing the body to breathe by mimicking the negative pressure breathing system. In 1928, the newly-developed iron lung was first used on an eight-year-old girl who was almost pronounced dead due to polio. Within one minute of the iron lung’s treatment, she had improved dramatically. This first iron lung patient helped to skyrocket its popularity. Soon, hospitals all over the world had iron lung machines filled with polio patients. In 1958, a woman dubbed “Polio Mom Of The Year” made headline news when she gave birth to her daughter, Dolores, from the iron lung.
While the iron lung was a hero to many people, it can also be the subject of nightmare fuel. A metal box or tube that encases the body and breathes for it sounds… well, terrifying, to say the least.
Take a deep breath of sweet, precious oxygen and be glad you can breathe on your own as we present fifteen of the creepiest images about the iron lung the internet has to offer.
15. They Even Had To Drink And Eat In There
Three young children (fourth patient not shown) lay in the massive iron lung while a nurse stands by ready with a cup of water for one of the boys. When it came to beverages, straws were an obvious necessity while in the iron lung. Adults and children who found themselves in the machine had to learn how to do everything while laying on their backs. Drinking and eating had to be done very carefully so that the patients didn’t choke while swallowing. They had to get the timing just right so that they swallowed on the outtake of air. If they missed the timing and swallowed on the intake of air, there was a good chance that the food or drink would be aspirated into their lungs. As you can imagine, even with a good amount of practice this strict swallowing schedule must have made for a very stressful mealtime.
14. Smoking While In An Iron Lung
Oh, the iron-y! It was November 1949 and polio patient Louis Abercrombie had already been stuck in an iron lung for three probably very long and frustrating years. If you think it’s crazy for a medical staff member at a hospital to not only allow smoking but encourage it, welcome to 1949. The same year, a new advertising campaign hit America. With the tagline, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette” – they really had nicotine addicts hooked. Young nurse Verne Muskopf had sympathy for Louis whose craving for a cigarette was probably reaching a breaking point until Nurse Muskopf decided to help him out. Louis would have had to make sure he had the timing right to inhale with the machine and exhale the smoke on the machine’s exhale otherwise he could have landed himself in a painful situation. He probably was incredibly grateful for his nurse’s attention seeing as how he has only his watch nearby the count down the seemingly endless minutes in his iron lung during his stay at St. Anthony’s, a hospital in St. Louis which is now abandoned.
13. Woman Visits With Her Newborn From The Iron Lung
A nurse holds a newborn baby out for a new mother to see while her doctor looks on. The mother looks pretty young herself thanks to the pigtails she’s sporting but the hairstyle might be for comfort’s sake since she has to lie on her back for long periods of a time. The poliovirus works by destroying nerve cells in the spinal cord and causes the muscles of the body to become weak and even waste away, potentially even causing paralysis so we can just imagine that this young mother had plenty of worrying thoughts to keep her occupied while she spent her time in the iron lung. She probably worried about if she would ever be well enough to help her baby as he or she started to walk for the first time as well as all of the other physical needs that being a parent usually requires.
12. No One Was Immune From The Devastating Effects Of Polio
Unfortunately, seeing a baby in an iron lung wasn’t that much of an unusual sight during the rampage of the poliovirus from the 1930s to the 1950s. Just from the look in his eyes, this little baby looks as though he’s already been through a lot in his short time on earth. Being a baby in an iron lung couldn’t have been a picnic. Babies often get fussy and need comfort from their mothers. For a mother with a baby in an iron lung, the only small comfort she could offer was to touch her baby’s head. Hopefully, this little fella didn’t require too much time in the machine and was able to lead a full, happy life. He certainly deserved it after such a rocky start.
11. Martha Ann Lillard – 60 Years In An Iron Lung
At the tender age of five, Martha Ann Lillard (now sixty-nine years old) was diagnosed with polio and forced to start the formative years of her life from an iron lung. Today, she owns her iron lung (which makes great economical sense seeing as how she has to use it as much as she does) and whenever it breaks down, she has friends that will patch it back together with old car parts. She says that the iron lung “feels wonderful” if you’re having trouble breathing which she often does. It’s amazing and even inspiring to see that Martha still has that same bright smile on her face as she did so many years ago. She seems to be a very upbeat and positive person, despite having spent the better part of her life in a breathing machine. Martha is one of the few people in the world who still relies on an iron lung to help her breathe.
10. Keeping In Touch With Today’s World From The Iron Lung
Paul Alexander of North Texas has been in a one thousand two hundred pound iron lung since 1952 and is one of ten or so people in the world who still relies on an iron lung to breathe. On March 23, 2015, a YouTube user uploaded a video of Paul with the title, “Man has been in iron lung for almost 60 years and needs help to be able to breathe deeply.” The problem Paul was having was due to a certain part of the machinery in his iron lung. Because it was made so long ago and the manufacturer stopped making parts for them as technology and modern medicine improved, Paul was in a bad situation. For certain polio survivors like Paul, a negative pressure machine like the iron lung is ideal for helping him breathe instead of a more modern positive pressure respirator which can cause inflammation. Despite his health setbacks, Paul obtained three college degrees and became a practicing lawyer before retiring.
9. A Nurse Helps A Baby To Breathe
This photo was taken during the 1950s and shows a nurse helping a tiny baby, likely affected with the poliovirus, to breathe with the help of a small iron lung. Unlike older children and adults, babies needed constant monitoring while in the baby-sized iron lung. The baby’s new parents must have been terrified for their little one, knowing that polio paralyzed hundreds of thousands of children every year during that time. If the survivors were lucky enough not to be paralyzed, they faced a multitude of health issues: severe muscle fatigue and muscle loss, pain and weakness. These symptoms could strike anywhere from fifteen to fifty years after the initial infection of the disease. Hopefully, this baby ended up beating the odds and laid his or her parents’ worst fears to rest.
8. Dolls Were Created To Demonstrate How The Iron Lung Worked For Children
The poliovirus was spreading like wildfire during its reign of terror before Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh created the killed polio vaccine – so much so, that dolls and toys were designed and created for the specific purpose of showing children how the disease could affect a polio victim’s body. A small miniature replica of an “iron” lung was built with a plastic doll to fit into its chambers to show children how the machine worked to provide pressure on the weakened body to help the lungs fill up with air. Other toys and dolls were created to show children how a polio survivor might have to live with weakened leg muscles. While this was no doubt very depressing for children to learn about, it was likely a better scenario than introducing them to the iron lung with no previous knowledge of it.
7. Cruising In The Iron Lung
Iron lung on the go! Here’s a man who’s not letting a huge iron device that has most of his body encased stop him from enjoying the lovely weather outdoors. We are not sure what the reason is for this iron lung being outdoors. On average, an iron lung machine weighed around two hundred and twenty-five pounds. Not to mention, it required electricity to run. Perhaps the hospital staff found a long extension cord and decided to let this iron lung patient have a day in the sun to get a face tan. Judging by the big smile on the man’s face, we would have to say that all of their efforts were worth it. The mirror was helpful not just for hospital staff to communicate with the patient but to allow the patient to get a better sense of what was going on around them. Imagine how frustrating it would be to be forced to look up at the ceiling for days, months or even years on end.
6. Entertainment In The Iron Lung
At just five years old, Betty Sue Martin had spent 35 days in the iron lung at the Johns Hopkins Hospital of Baltimore, Maryland. The hospital serves as a teaching and research hospital so little Betty Sue was probably looked on by quite a few doctors and nurses in training. It also looks like the tiny girl had plenty of visitors who took good care of her during her stay, filling her visual space up with paper dolls, personal notes, a Peter Rabbit picture and toy and other small trinkets to help her smile and pass the time. Can you imagine the children of today being entertained for thirty-five minutes by what Betty Sue had to entertain herself with for a minimum of thirty-five days?
5. Space Saving Double Decker Iron Lung Makes For Front Page News
This four-passenger iron lung was a big enough deal that it made front page news back in the forties or early fifties. The article states that besides the space saving design, the other advantages were the reduced cost for use (just one machine to run instead of four) and the fact that four people would be able to entertain each other. This was by far the biggest deal to the patients. Before iPads and tablets with streaming and downloadable media, the only “entertainment” polio patients had in an iron lung was pictures or trinkets that their loved ones would paste around the space above the heads so they would have something to look at for hours on end. To be able to have three (literally) built-in buddies to talk with was probably a huge highlight, considering of course that the four patients got along with each other. If not, that would have made for one heck of a long and awkward hospital stay.
4. Iron Lungs In Great Demand As The Polio Epidemic Swept The Nation
In this photo, only four patients were well enough to sit up in a bed and breathe on their own without the use of an iron lung at the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in California in 1953… or they might have been on the obviously crowded waiting list. This image goes to show the massive damage caused by the poliovirus. Parents of young children were constantly terrified that their child would be the newest victim as the disease made its way through town after town, state after state and country after country. Polio was (and still can be in countries where the disease is still active) contracted by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water or simply by contact with a person who has the disease. Prior to 1952 when Jonas Salk and his scientific team at the University of Pittsburgh created the polio vaccine, there was little parents could do for their children short of keeping them at home and limiting their contact with the outside world.
3. Full Enclosure
Most iron lungs allowed the patient’s head to protrude from the machine but certain iron lungs enclosed the entire body of the patient. This model, referred to as an iron lung with a dome, is cylindrical with a clear viewing window for the head which allowed the medical staff to check on the patient and see if she was in distress as well as allow the patient to see what was going on in the room. The other clear window was designed for the doctors and nurses to be able to manually adjust the machine’s functioning as needed and also to help take care of the patient and maximize their comfort. We’re not certain but judging by the white sheets strung up around the iron lung, it looks like this was a makeshift hospital or maybe the staff was just trying to give this patient extra privacy while she recuperated in her iron breathing tube.
2. Now You Can Only Find The Iron Lung In A Museum
That is, unless you happen to visit one of the remaining ten or so living people in the world who still rely on the iron lung to help them breathe. This old relic helped patients breathe with its airtight chamber attached to a pump. Mimicking the natural rhythm and timing of normal breathing, the pump would work by drawing all of the air out of the machine and this would force the patient’s chest to rise. Then the patient’s mouth and nose which were not encased by the airtight chamber would draw in air. To complete the cycle, air would flow back into the chamber, causing the patient’s chest to fall. Thankfully, modern medicine has advanced enough that patients who need assistance breathing can rely on newly-designed respirators which pump air directly into the chest, the opposite of the iron lung’s design. While the iron lung is outdated, it saved countless lives and deserves a place in history (and museums) even though its coffin-like appearance can look kind of intimidating. This display can be found at the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds.
1. Sisterly Assistance
There are a few photos floating around the internet showing nuns visiting with iron lung patients, praying over groups of patients as well as even helping out with nursing duties. When the polio epidemic was at its highest point, suitable volunteers were a welcomed sight to help with anything from overseeing the machine’s functions to calming some of the more frightened or excited patients down so they could receive the maximum benefit of their breathing treatment. Nuns would have been able to offer the children, whose parents were likely busy working or caring for other children, some kind words, a prayer and most of all, comfort. For a child who was “trapped” in a heavy iron machine, comfort could have been at least, the second best kind of medicine.
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