Woman Lives Full Life in Iron Lung

When Martha Mason read of the death this week of 61-year-old Dianne Odell due to a power outage that caused her iron lung to stop working, she said she found it "appalling."

"It was sad news," Mason said. "When I read that article, I thought, it's so sad that something like that could happen."

Most anyone hearing the news might agree. But for Mason, Odell's death carried special significance.

Mason, too, lives in an iron lung. She has relied on the device for the past 60 years, ever since a childhood bout with polio left her paralyzed from the neck down. "I'm basically a head person," she said, a smile in her voice.

Now preparing to celebrate her 71st birthday this Saturday in her town of Lattimore, N.C., Mason may be the first to say that her life's circumstances have not been ideal. But she noted, in sentences cadenced by pauses at four-second intervals, that the apparatus has not kept her from living her life to the fullest.

"My story's been one of joy, one of wonderful experiences," she said. "It has not been perfect. But that's what people need to understand -- that I have had a good life."

While she remains confined to the bright yellow apparatus, Mason enjoys a steady stream of friends and other visitors at her home. She is a member of a supper club. And, with the help of a voice-activated computer, she has also written her autobiography, titled "Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung."

Mason has also been the subject of a 2005 documentary, "Martha in Lattimore," directed by Mary Dalton, a professor of communication at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"People hear about her and the documentary and they think, 'how depressing,'" Dalton said. "But it's really not like that at all."

Life in an Iron Lung

For many readers younger than 50, Mason's book or Dalton's documentary may be their first introduction to the tank respirator, or iron lung.

Invented in 1927, the machine was the first real solution available to those who suffered from breathing problems brought about by polio, a disease that paralyzes the muscles of the body, including those in the chest.

The iron lung kept people breathing by holding them from the neck down in a metal tank. The air pressure within was modulated by vacuum pumps, and the changes in the air pressure pulled air in and out of a patient's lungs.

According to the Smithsonian Institution, the devices were not cheap; in the 1930s, the $1,500 a family would pay for an iron lung was about the same amount of money needed to buy the average house.

Mason receiving physical therapy in her younger days. (Photo courtesy Mary Dalton)

Still, their status as the only option to keep some polio survivors alive led to their widespread adoption. By 1959, the Smithsonian Institution estimates that there were 1,200 people using iron lungs in the United States.

By 2004, this number had dwindled to 39 -- thanks in large part to widespread vaccination, which has nearly wiped the scourge of polio off the U.S. map.

The number is even smaller today. Still, Mason said that even though alternatives to the iron lung have emerged over the years, she has chosen to remain in her tank respirator.

"By the time [alternatives] were readily available, I had already established a lifestyle in an iron lung," she noted.

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