Lifestyle & Human Interest

Decades After Contracting Polio, One Woman Still Uses Her Iron Lung to Survive


Just a few days after Martha Lillard turned 5 in 1953, she was diagnosed with Polio. She was hospitalized for six months and has spent 68 years facing a litany of unique struggles and missed opportunities because of her condition.

When she was younger, that meant she eventually had to attend school from home.

“My brother was in her ‘class’ at Jefferson School,” one person commented on Facebook. “The kids thought it was great that she ‘attended’ through the radio device on the teacher’s desk. Brave lady . . . and famous among the medical community . . . and old friends.”

But Lillard couldn’t participate in school functions, she couldn’t go camping.

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As an adult, that meant holding down a full-time job was impossible, and she was unable to have children.

Her constant companion and lifelong support have come in the form of a machine, which has presented its own unique set of obstacles as it grows more and more obsolete in the modern world.

Lillard is one of few people who still rely on an iron lung. She uses it every night, and with each night that passes, she’s one sleep closer to the crucial parts wearing out.

“I’ve tried all the forms of ventilation,” she told Radio Diaries, according to NPR. “The iron lung is the most efficient and the best and the most comfortable way.”

Many have found ways around using the iron lung, but it still plays a vital role in Lillard’s life. For the past three decades, she’s been racing against the clock to keep the machine — and herself — alive.

In 1990 she desperately searched for places that would have backup machines, as hers was failing. Museums and hospitals either didn’t want to give up their “collectibles” or had already trashed them, and no iron lungs had been made since the 1960s.

A man in Utah was able to sell her a unit, which she has relied on since then, but the parts continue to wear and need replacement; it’s more difficult to find someone to service the machine, and she only has a few collars left.

The collars are essential to keep the machine functioning properly: They allow a seal to be formed, so the machine can help her breathe.

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She’s bought out all the backstock she could find and has gone through a series of other options. On a Facebook post by her sister, Cindy McVey, Lillard explained that a manufacturer in China a few years back had offered to make some, but “they wouldn’t seal.”

“That’s the main thing I’m having a hard time with, because I try to stretch out, make these collars last longer,” Lillard said. “And when they start deteriorating, it gets harder and harder to breathe as they leak more.”

“I really am desperate. That’s the most scary thing in my life right now — is not finding anybody that can make those collars.”

Even when the iron lung works as intended, it presents potential threats that most don’t face. One year during an ice storm the power went out, the backup generator didn’t come on and cell service was down, leaving Lillard trapped as it got colder and colder.

When she finally managed to contact emergency help, they didn’t even know what she meant by “iron lung.” Fortunately, they were able to get her power again.

“It’s like being buried alive almost, you know — it’s so scary,” Lillard said. “I was having trouble breathing. And I remember saying out loud to myself, ‘I’m not going to die.'”

Her life certainly looks different from most people’s, but she has close friends, family and her dogs — beagles — who keep her company and keep her spirits up.

With her story going out again, people have begun to try to come up with a solution for her collar shortage.

One person commented on the Facebook post, suggesting scuba diving companies, but McVey said “scuba suit material won’t stretch enough to get her head thru.”

Another person commented to say her husband had connections in mechanical engineering, research and design and manufacturing and would like to try to help.

A good story set loose on social media has turned up miracles before, so hopefully this most recent telling will help Lillard find the parts she needs to keep herself and her “dear friend” going.

“It’s what sustains me,” she said of the iron lung, according to NPR. “It’s what heals me. It’s what allows me to breathe the next day.

“I look at it as a friend, as a very dear friend.”

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