Meet the Last 3 People Still Using an Iron Lung

Gizmodo writer visits them all, and finds that the logistics of survival are scary
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 22, 2017 8:00 AM CST
Updated Nov 26, 2017 3:52 PM CST
Meet the Last 3 People Still Using an Iron Lung
In this 2014 photo, Paul Alexander of Dallas uses a plastic stick with a pencil tied to it to type on a keyboard. He is one of the few people left in the world using an iron lung.   (AP Photo/Courtesy Shelly Conlon, The Waxahachie Daily Light)

When Jonas Salk's vaccine largely wiped out polio in the US back in the 1950s, it eliminated a once-common sight: rows of iron lungs in hospitals used to help victims breathe. But the need for those life-saving contraptions hasn't been entirely eliminated. Jennings Brown of Gizmodo visits three polio survivors in the US who still rely on them every day for survival, and they may be the last such people in the country. One common thread in all of their stories is not just their daily struggle to breathe, but their constant struggle to keep the half-century-old machines running. If a part breaks, or the power goes out at their homes, the consequences could be fatal. Near Oklahoma City, for example, 69-year-old Martha Lillard is worried about conserving the canvas spiral collar that provides a vital seal around her neck when she sleeps in her machine.

The manufacturer of those collars won't sell her more because its stock is down to 10. If Lillard can't find a solution? "Well, I die," she says. Lillard spends half her day inside her machine, and 81-year-old Mona Randolph of Kansas City, Missouri, similarly can spend time outside of hers. But in Dallas, 70-year-old Paul Alexander is confined to his iron lung for pretty much the entire day and night. Reporter Brown tries out Lillard's machine for himself, describing the sensation of having the apparatus breathe for him as "the most relief and discomfort I have ever felt at the same time." Click for the full story, which has background on the polio epidemic (including the nugget that Mia Farrow spent eight months in an iron lung as a child), the iron lungs themselves, and the concern that anti-vaxxers could cause the disease to resurface in a bad way. (More Longform stories.)

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