Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Surprising Life Lessons from an Iron Lung

"Get as much joy from life for yourself and others as you can squeeze out of it." - Martha Mason *
I organized a homeschool co-op field trip to Flagstaff for a day of adventure and learning.  As always, I had as much fun as the children.  The day started with a visit to the Pioneer Museum.  There were many artifacts there with ties to northern Arizona history. There were items relating to prominent ranching families who settled the area, and stories about the making of the state of Arizona.

A few highlights:

I was surprised to see this brand on the wall. We still buy heifers with the  V BAR V brand, and it's been around since 1891.

I've always had a thing for old barbed wire, and they had a large display of several unique types.

This mountain lion named "Josephine"  was gifted to the Arizona Rangers as a cub, and she was their mascot for many years.  She had a tendency to wreak havoc on the horses when her natural instincts kicked in, and scattered them to regions far and wide when they were tied to their picket lines. She definitely had a reputation for trouble. Josephine once got loose on a train while traveling with the Rangers and tried to attack passengers from New York as she ran up and down the aisles.  When she died, the Rangers made her into a rug.  After the rug wore out, her head was donated to the museum so her legacy could live on.

  The Pioneer museum is housed in an old building that was formerly a respite home for the elderly in the days before Hospice and Social Security.  As such, there were many old relics from the medical field there as well.

It was all very fascinating, but there was one item that haunted me for days.

I'm sure that my parents' generation was familiar with the Negative Pressure Ventilator, a machine that was also known as the "Iron Lung". This, however, was the first one I had ever seen or heard of.  The Iron Lung is a capsule that someone lives in with their head sticking out on the end.  The machine allows a paralyzed person to breath by changing the pressure inside to expand and contract the lungs.  Iron Lungs are virtually obsolete today. They've been replaced with modern ventilators that allow people freedom of movement.  But at the height of the Polio epidemic, Iron Lungs were quite common. They were life savers.

The thing that really bothered me were the stories that accompanied the display.  I read of a woman named Dianne Odell who contracted Polio at age 3, and lived in an Iron Lung for nearly 60 years. 60 YEARS!!!  The worst part was that she died in 2008 during a bad storm in Tennessee.  There was a power outage, and the back-up generator failed so she had no electricity to keep the machine running.  It was tragic.

All I could think of was that it must have been a living hell to live life in a casket-like capsule for 60 years. It bothered me so much that I went home and started reading more about what life was like in an Iron Lung.  Weird, I know, but I couldn't fathom how terrible it must have been. Yet I was blown away when, upon further research, I discovered that many people in Iron Lungs made the best of a bad situation, and went on to live fulfilling lives.  Many actually got an education, had a large circle of friends, hosted parties, and even wrote books with voice activated computers. They didn't allow circumstances to get them down.

Dianne Odell's story inspired me. Here's a woman who many people would feel had every right to have a chip on her shoulder.  She could have cursed God for dealing her a bad hand and felt sorry for herself her whole life.  She could have given up.  Many people in her situation would have thrown in the towel. But she didn't.  In fact, she did just the opposite.  She lived her life to the fullest.

"I've had a very good life, filled with love and family and faith.  You can make life good or you can make it bad. "- Dianne Odell

If there's one thing in my Iron Lung research that really smacked me in the face, it's the glaring reminder that much of our happiness in life depends on our outlook.  Bad things happen to everyone at some point, but it's how we react to these challenges that determines whether we have joy or not. Happiness is ultimately a choice.  

* The quote at the beginning of this blog was from a woman named Martha Mason, another 60 year veteran of the Iron Lung.  She died in 2009.


  1. What an awful looking contraption to think of having to live inside it! I had heard of iron lungs all my life but had never seen what one looks like or did any research on them.

    One of my aunts had to use one for several years when she had Polio but she got better. Though crippled for life she at least didn't need to spend the rest of her life in one of those.

  2. I was curious why someone would continue to be confined with some of the more modern respiratory technologies available to them. I did a bit more research myself. Apparently, Dianne had a spinal deformity that made this the safest approach for her. There is even now a "portable" kind of "iron lung" that is a sort of torso only vest.

  3. I've heard of the Iron Lung, but have never seen what they looked like. I can't imagine what it would be like to live in one. I guess it's all what you're used to and also all in your outlook.