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.

And there are other reasons. "After investigation and observation, I've learned that these people have [tracheotomies]; they have infections, they have a lot more problems," Mason said. "I don't know of any one of them who has used that equipment for 60 years and had a good life with it."

And Dalton, the filmmaker, said there is another reason Mason chooses to stay in her iron lung -- independence.

"The thing I think is so interesting about Martha's life is that she chooses to live in an iron lung because she can be independent that way," she said, adding that the lung needs no monitoring by a medical professional, and it allows Mason to remain in her own home, surrounded by the people and things of her choosing.

Mason receiving her degree as part of the class of 1960 at Wake Forest College, now Wake Forest University. (Photo courtesy Mary Dalton)

"Because she is living in that community, her life is so rich and so full, and she is autonomous," Dalton said. "Her iron lung is not invasive. She doesn't have any tubes anywhere; it's her in the iron lung."

And while the degree of freedom afforded by the lung is limited, Mason noted that she has done her best to make the most of her situation. Thanks to an intercom system, she was able to attend Wake Forest College -- what is now Wake Forest University -- from 1958 to 1960. During her graduation, she made a brief foray out of the iron lung to accept her degree.

And this past spring, she and her classmates celebrated the 50th anniversary of their intake. This time, a computer monitor and Webcam allowed her to be part of her class in a way she never was before.

"It was set up so my computer monitor was even at the banquet," she said. "Of course, they all called and talked to me. ... I had all of these people and faces."

Reflecting on Tragedy

Unlike Odell's iron lung, Mason's is backed up by a fully functioning emergency generator. She said that in addition to the backup generator, the fire department sends a crew to her house whenever there is a power outage, just to make sure her iron lung is functioning properly. "The firemen have been wonderful," she said. "They're prompt; they're always here immediately."

These are benefits she said Odell likely did not have. And in past telephone conversations with Odell, she said she knew the Tennessee woman endured a far worse situation than she has encountered.

Mason in her iron lung, present day. (Photo courtesy Mary Dalton)

"She called me one day, and her sister called me a couple of times before," Mason said. "I don't think she was very well. … It makes me give some thought to how fortunate I am."

And as one of the few surviving people left who live their lives encased in an iron tank, she said she intends to continue as she always has -- making the most out of what life has offered her.

"Get as much joy from life for yourself and others as you can squeeze out of it," she said.

Lara Salahi contributed to this report.