Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Iron lung

You may have heard that Martha Mason (1937-2009) died last week, having spent the last 61 years confined to an 800 lb., 7' airtight yellow tube that enabled her to breathe - an iron lung. The prototype of the machine, also known as a tank respirator, was devised in 1927 at Harvard University to maintain respiration artificially until a person could breathe independently, usually after one or two weeks. A pump powered by an electric motor changed the pressure inside a rectangular, airtight metal box, pulling air in and out of the lungs. The iron lung began mass-production in 1939 and the bottom photo shows a ward of patients in the early stages of polio, which paralyzed certain muscle groups in the chest. I was surprised to learn that there are as many as 30 people still living in an iron lung here in the U.S. Like Mason, they have preferred living their lives by this non-invasive means, rather than more portable devices that require intubation. Mason considered her life quite full and fulfilling, having graduated from Wake Forest University, given dinner parties, dictated her memoirs, and - most recently - joined FaceBook and participated in her college reunion by webcam. Until the age of 20, she was able to leave the machine for an hour at a time, but as an adult a stream of visitors came to her to visit in her North Carolina home.
The practical questions I have are not answered in any articles I could find, except in describing the iron lung's history: "Former patients describe living in the noisy respirators for months on end, never leaving to be bathed or changed. They took their meals flat on their backs, fed by a nurse, and if their faces itched, they couldn't scratch them. Mirrors gave them a better view of their surroundings, and they could read with a device that suspended a book over their head (a nurse had to turn the pages). If someone opened the portholes at the wrong moment in the respirator's pressure cycle, the patient's breath would be knocked out of him. During power outages, hospital staff - doctors included - took turns pumping the respirators manually with a bellows." Mason's iron lung was backed up by a generator and the fire department sent a crew to check on her whenever the power went out. She was appalled by the failure of an automatic emergency generator that was supposed to keep Dianne Odell of Tennessee alive - she had also spent 6 decades in an iron lung and died in May 2008.

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