The Last of the Iron Lungs


As storms raged through Oklahoma in 2013, Martha Lillard waited them out from inside her iron lung. She is one of just dozens of polio survivors who still rely on their decades-old machines.

The Last of the Iron Lungs is a portrait of Martha, who contracted polio in 1953. To Martha, the 1940s iron lung is comfort and survival. As a researcher explains in the story, newer machines operate differently, forcing air into the lungs in a way that doesn’t feel right for iron lung patients.

Producer Julia Scott sent us some thoughts about her experience reporting this story:

“Martha’s story is fascinating enough on its own. It’s a radio producer’s dream to be able to capture the kinds of sounds no one will ever hear again – the mechanical bellows, pushing air through a machine older than Martha herself.

“Reporting this story made me realize how distant and abstracted polio has become in our national memory. Martha’s bedroom is dominated by her iron lung, a relic of history that most people my age may never even have heard of (I’m 32). To her, it’s a trusted companion and a lifelong friend. But the iron lung symbolized one of the most terrifying, unpredictable health epidemics of the 20th century. Archival photos like this one brought home the sheer scale of the outbreak – and the prospect of lifelong paralysis that thousands of people endured.

“One of the highlights of this project was being able to try out Martha’s iron lung – something I was a little scared to do. I laid down on the sliding cot, pushed my head through her foam neck collar and she sealed me in. It wasn’t claustrophobic, but I wasn’t counting on how hard it would be stop drawing breath and let the respirator take over pushing my diaphragm in and out, forcing air to whoosh into my throat. ‘Stop trying to breathe!’ Martha instructed. For her, lying in the iron lung is the most comfortable sensation in the world.

“Since the story has aired I’ve received emails from people whose families were touched by polio, grandfathers and great-aunts who spent time in an iron lung but graduated to breathing on their own. They see Martha’s story as part of the same continuum.”

This episode was reported and produced by Julia Scott. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

Image of Martha Lillard © Julia Scott.

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