Mona Randolph, Paul Alexander, and Martha Lillard may live different lives, but they do have one thing in common: they are among the last living polio survivors who rely on an iron lung to breathe, perhaps even the last 3 at all.
In interviews with Gizmodo, Randolph, Alexander, and Lillard detailed the triumphs and struggles of their lives — namely how lucky they are to be alive after being infected with polio in their younger years and how difficult it is to make sure their iron lungs stay operational so they can remain that way.
Hailing from Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Dallas, all 3 polio survivors contracted the disease at the ages of 20, 6, and 10 respectively. And all 3 have a similar story to tell of falling ill and, in the days following, of eventually being unable to move their limbs or breathe on their own.
These 3 survivors rely on a now-seemingly ancient device, called the iron lung, to breathe for them during large portions of each day. This negative pressure ventilator allows their lungs to easily inhale air, something that is difficult for their bodies to do outside of the device. The problem? The device is so antiquated, it is nearly impossible to find repairmen and replacement parts to tend to regular maintenance of the life-saving machines.
The 1950s in the United States, when these 3 survivors contracted the disease, saw a surge in polio infections, particularly among young children. It was so bad, Lillard says, that “all the mothers were just terrified because people were just getting it right and left. They didn’t know if it was a virus or bacteria or how you caught it.” Many parents self-quarantined their children at this time after infection rates increased. Some kids were lucky enough to avoid infection altogether, or to survive the disease with faculties intact, while others, including these 3 subjects, barely escaped with their lives. Still others perished as a result of the infectious disease — approximately 3,000, to be exact.
By 1955, Jonas Salk had developed the inactivated polio vaccine, with Albert Sabin’s oral polio vaccine being introduced by 1961. As a result of these life-saving preventative measures, which are listed on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, the last recorded polio case in the United States was in 1979, and the worldwide incidence of polio infection has been reduced from 350,000 in 1988 to 37 in 2016.
But all that stands to be threatened with the increased number of parents opting out of vaccinations for their children since the turn of the century.
As Alexander states from his iron lung, “My worst thought is that polio has come back. If there’s children in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Nigeria or wherever polio’s still happening, somebody carrying the virus could come to America and then just infect one child. It only takes one child that has it. Then there’s going to be another epidemic. This is what polio does.”
My own grandmother contracted polio in her early 20s while pregnant with her second child. She spent a good deal of time in her own iron lung and ultimately lost the baby, but as much horror as she endured, she thankfully came out of the experience without lifelong paralysis and with the ability to breathe on her own. But not a day of her life went by when she didn’t think about her fortune and advocate strongly for childhood vaccination, both in her role as a nurse and as a parent, grandparent, and citizen.
She ultimately died thanks to a case of pneumonia at the age of 83 — something I often wonder if her polio-compromised lungs didn’t contribute to. But after over 2 decades of listening to variations of her story, there is one thing I took to heart, and that is the miracle of modern medicine and its ability to thwart traumatic and deadly infectious diseases. And unless they were medically incapable, you couldn’t pay me not to vaccinate my own children after hearing about her trials and the trials of those she knew who suffered because of polio.
While I know convincing those who have steadfastly chosen not to vaccinate to change their minds isn’t as easy as sharing a personal anecdote, I only hope those who think they’re doing right for their children by not vaccinating at least take a second to listen to the stories of these 3 survivors and imagine a world where their children cannot breathe without the help of an outdated machine.
And then I hope they rethink their decision, even if it is only for a moment. Because I guarantee if any of the nearly 60,000 infected and 3,000 killed by polio before the advent of the vaccination had anything to say about it, most would give just about everything to have been fortunate enough to receive a medication that could have prevented their suffering.