Revised: Iron Lung : A True Life Story

What does it seem like to live in an iron lung for over three decades? That was the lot of my friend as you will see in this story.

“Comfort don’t ever leave me,” she says to me as she struggles on her death bed. I hold her hands, trying to fight away tears from my eyes. Her struggle now becomes weaker and weaker. And then drawing a deep long breath, her eyes fixed on my face, she dies. The hospital attendants wheeled her away to the morgue. And I thought that the world had ended.

I was saddled with the task of breaking this news to her family of three. When I arrived, Job her husband had already seen it from my countenance.

“Is she dead?” was all that he managed to ask. I nodded in affirmation, and everyone burst into tears.

The news of Hope’s death spread quickly. She was not a princess. But even the heavens shook on the day that she passed on. Soon her Hollywood neighbors and the newsmen start pouring in. And before long the death of the woman who survived 37 years lying flat on her back in an iron lung—the longest record in human history—appeared in the newspapers and television. But how did I come to know her? you may ask.

I worked for Hope as an attendant being a nursing–school student. I was taken aback when I first saw this woman living inside a tank called a respirator. I don’t know, dear reader, if you have been privilege to see one of those early iron lungs. These contraptions were rounded tanks, about six feet long and three feet wide, fitted with gadgets. They were made to assist polio patients with paralyzed chest muscles.

Now, picture Hope in this tank. The whole of her body is inside the respirator except her head. To keep the cylinder airtight, a plastic collar and a metal bar were used to hold the collar tight to her collarbone. The air pressure inside the tanks was changed about 15 times a minute by a bellows below the tank. When the bellows expands, it withdraws air from the tank thus causing the patient’s chest to rise as air enters through the nose, mouth or both. But when the bellows contracts, it exerts pressure on the chest which makes the patient to exhale.

Hope could only move her head since her body was totally paralyzed from the neck to her feet (though she could still feel). She could not do any of the things that all of us take for granted. Like eating with her hands; using the toilets or bathroom; playing with her children; sleeping with her husband; or even scratching her body. Her only contact with the world is from a mirror placed above her respirator. This mirror reflected another mirror mounted on the wall on the opposite side across the room, which made it possible for her to see her front door and incoming visitors. And since the respirator could be seen through the large window at the front of her house in the busy street where she lived, she had plenty of them.

At first, I could not bring myself to ask her how she came into this. As time went by, however, we become familiar and talked freely together. Then one day when her husband came to see how she was doing, I asked the question directing it to no one in particular. I thought that her husband would provide the answer, but instead, it was Comfort that started her story.

“I know that you would ask me this one day, Comfort” she said. “I will tell you everything. I had a happy marriage with my husband, together with Paul our son and Endurance, our daughter. I like life, and we would always go on picnic to interesting places like the parks and beaches. The last holiday I had together with my husband and the children was twenty years ago in Switzerland.” Tears begin to swell in her eyes, and I quickly cleaned it up since she had no means to do so, while her husband looked away. I felt guilty in my heart for reminding her of the past.

“Thank you Comfort. As I was saying, my last holiday was in Switzerland. Or was it in Australia?” she asked her husband.

“You are right. We went Down Under before visiting the Alps. But why remember the past?” he replies. She continues as if she did not hear him.

“Then one black winter morning in 1948—thirty six years after I was born in Los Angles—I discovered that I was stricken with deadly polio.” She swallowed hard and continued. “Things got bad quickly. From flu to paralysis, and then to the hospital where I added up to several polio patients on the waiting list.” She wanted to scratch herself but since she could not do it herself, she called my attention to it, which I did. And then she resumed her story.

“Thanks again Comfort” she said. She is never tired of greeting. “I was afraid. I thought that I was going to die. For I had to lie on my back on the floor of the crowded hospital waiting for an iron lung. But it was long in coming. Breathing was hard. Then one day, I passed out. I did not know what happened afterward. Job will tell you the rest of the story.”

It was now the lot of her husband who has suffered financially and emotionally, to narrate the ordeal of his wife. He seemed hesitant at first. But a look by his wife was enough to prompt him to continue the story.

“When Hope fainted, I didn’t think that she would come back to life again. The doctors must have been some kind of magicians because after one week, my wife started to breathe again. And before long, she was placed in the next available respirator, much to our relief.

“These iron lungs were at first thought to be a temporary invention—helping patients to recover—and breathe on their own later. But we discovered that the opposite was the case. Because these breathing machines were to become the permanent homes of many polo sufferers

“Knowing this, I brought her home with the machine. And she has been living inside it for the past three decades” he ended and left the room, trying to hide his tears. I tried to fight back mine too. I was trying to really understand what it means to lie on one’s back in one spot for over thirty years.

“At first I was horrified at the thought,” Hope now continues. “But what would I do? I didn’t want to die. And some poet said that what cannot be cured, can be endured. So I decided to endure as far as God keeps me alive. Look at my husband and children. I should be caring for them. But what would I do now?” she asks rhetorically.

Her faith in God kept her going through the years. She was a very devout Christian and she believed that her suffering was only for a time. She explained that it was the rebellion of our first parents—Adam and Eve—in the garden of Eden that is responsible for the present suffering in the world. She spoke of a time when God’s Kingdom would rule, and she would ask me to read the bible book of Revelation chapter 21 verse 4 which says “And he [God] will wipe out every tears from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.”

She says that at that time, the paradise, which Adam and Eve lost, would be regained. She would direct me to read what Jesus Christ told a thief at Luke 23:43. “And he said to him: ‘Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.” And she firmly believed that if she dies, she will be resurrected to live again, pointing out what Jesus told Lazarus’s sister, Martha at John 11 verse 25 which reads: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He that exercises faith in me even though he dies will come to life.’ ”

I must confess that I was not a Christian when I started working for her. She was the one that preached to me and converted me to Christianity. And that was what she did to numerous other curious passersby and strangers who came to see her. Instead of being encouraged, she was the one that encouraged her sympathizers; and her faith in the Bible made many to become Christians. She was always praying to God in behalf of herself and others; and despite her condition, she was full of compassion for people. In fact, her courage inspired all who knew her.

Her two children were always with us too. How sad they always look, not being able to hug their mum. But she always told them to look toward the bright future. Of them all, it was her little dog Mercy that added a touch of drama to the whole thing. She would sit there all day long, barking at and biting the machine, which held her owner prisoner thus preventing them from playing together. At these times, I would always have a hard time trying to quieten the dog and preventing her from damaging the iron lung. Sometimes, I wonder how foolish the dog is; trying to destroy the iron lung—the preserver of her owner. I also wonder what Hope thinks of euthanasia. I never mentioned the subject though.

Hope’s only regret is in not being present at the wedding ceremonies of her two children. For she was in the respirator when the two teenagers became adults, married and had children. She only saw the wedding pictures. Looking back, I think that it was actually a paradox that in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood—the entertainment capital of the world—one woman in the same city, was having all the troubles in the world. What am I going to relate? Is it the ordeal of washing her once a week? Or the task of knowing which part of her body to scratch? Come to think of what it takes to even feed her. Yet, she endured. And I did not give up on attending to her needs.

In fact, it could be said of her that she is a cat with nine lives. Because on top of this, she had an emergency appendectomy without anesthetic when her appendix burst, endured cancer, had major surgeries and chronic skin disorders.

But there is a time for every affair under the heaven. Even a time to live and a time to die. So, one day she went for her seventh surgery. And after that she was removed from the Iron lung for the first time in 37 years, attached to a modern respirator using her tracheotomy, and placed on a hospital bed. She was not getting enough air. Fear gripped her. She knew she was going to die.

Three days later as she struggled for life, she spoke her last words to me: “Comfort, don’t ever leave me.” I nodded. I was holding her. I didn’t want to cry. Then she died. Tears flowed freely. After one week, she was buried in the city cemetery. Wreaths of flowers covered her grave which was marked with the words: “Here lies one who waits upon the lord.” Darkness falls on the cemetery. And we go home to mourn our beloved Hope.

Twenty years have passed now. I have since then grown from a lady to a married woman with a family. Perhaps she has been forgotten. But I still visit the grave yard on every anniversary of her death to lay wreaths of flowers on her tomb.

Today is another anniversary of her death. And I take a bouquet of flowers to lay on my friend’s tomb. As I enter the cemetery, I raise my eyes toward the gate and I see the words of Solomon at Ecclesiastes chapter 1 verse 2: THE GREATEST VANITY! EVERYTHING IS VANITY.

I walk in to see the vanities of life in this cemetery for all kinds of people. On my left the tomb of an American war veteran who fell in battle in Vietnam. (Some old soldiers question why their comrade should be buried there). I move on and I see the tomb of an Indian ancestor from the lineage of Crazy Horse. (Native American Indians do not understand how he came to be interred in this cemetery). A little further lays a black slave from the family tree of Olauduah Equiano, called the man with the loud voice. And immediately after that is the burial place of a long time state governor (Nobody remember his name now).

I walk ahead to the marked tomb with the epitaph: HERE LIES ONE WHO WAITS UPON THE LORD. I lay my wreath of flowers on Hope’s tomb and sit to think of this loved one who suffered and died, waiting for the Lord. As I sit, I remember everything: the Iron lung, Hope’s strong faith, her husband Job (he is very old now), her children Paul and Endurance (they now have grand children), and Mercy the barking doggie (it barked herself to death one week after Hope’s funeral). I remember the bible says that we are like a mist that appears for a while and then disappears. I remember Shakespeare said that life is like a stage and we are mere players. My friend has played her part. We will all play our part.

I was awoken from my meditation by a flash of lightning and the roaring of the thunder. I looked up. It was going to rain. I gather myself and kiss goodbye to Hope as I hurry home. As I go, I remember her last words and I was ashamed that I was leaving my friend. On my way, I walk pass the tombs of the governor, the slave, the Indian and the war veteran—all vanities. I step outside the cemetery, look back and see those words again: THE GREATEST VANITY! EVERTHING IS VANITY. But I remember Hope used to talk of a bright future in paradise where sickness and suffering will be gone. I was encouraged. So life may not be in vain after all.

She took ill one black winter morning. My resolve now is to be faithful to God so that I will meet my friend during the resurrection in the coming new world. Them one bright summer evening we would gladly hold hands together as we walk through the gardens of paradise. And I will say to her: “I’m here, Hope. You see, I never left you.”


ARTHUR ZULU is an editor, book reviewer, and author of Chasing Shadows! and How to Write a Best-seller.
For his works and free helps for writers, goto:
Web search: Arthur Zulu

About the Author

The story of a woman who spent over 30 years in an iron lung.

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