Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

The Woman in the Iron Lung

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the  Crescenta Valley. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at

One vivid memory of my time at La Crescenta Elementary School was waiting to cross the street to the school on the corner of La Crescenta and Prospect avenues. We kids would surreptitiously glance across Prospect to the bay window of the house on the corner. Quite often we would see a mirror projecting a woman’s face, and it always seemed she was looking right at us. We kids had heard there was this lady in an iron lung, whatever that was, and that she never left the house!

Over the years since, I’ve learned what an iron lung was, and that that woman had lived in the device for 37 years, longer than any other patient (at that time). Just recently I discovered her story.

Post WWII, polio seemed to be everywhere. Papers would report outbreaks on the front page, and suspected areas of transmission – movie theaters and public pools – would be shut down in response to public fear. In 1948, Laura Nesbitt was a busy young mother of two in La Crescenta when she experienced a week of flu-like symptoms. When she could no longer move on her own, she was taken to County Hospital, already overflowing with polio victims. She lay on the floor of the hallway gasping for breath. When she was finally slipped into an iron lung, she was initially relieved, finally able to catch her breath. But after three years in the hospital it became obvious that her body would never breathe on its own and the doctors sent her home, permanently trapped inside the lung.

The iron lung was set up in their living room, a big steel cylinder like an oversize water heater. Laura’s head stuck out one end, an airtight seal tight around her collarbone. Every four seconds the cylinder would de-pressurize and pressurize, causing her chest to expand (forcing a breath in through her exposed nose), and contract (pushing the breath back out). From the neck up she was normal, and although flat on her back, she had a set of mirrors with which she could see the world, including kids going to and from the school across the street.

Despite her devastating disability, Laura kept an optimistic outlook on life and successfully raised her two kids. She was quite social and was able to talk on the phone. Often strangers hearing of her plight would stop in to visit. All who knew her said that as amazing as she was, her husband Don was even more so. He was a saint, providing for all her needs.

In 1965, she became a Jehovah’s Witness and found renewed purpose in life. She spent hours on the phone, talking to those in need of spiritual guidance or prayer, and meeting with Jehovah’s Witnesses from all over the world. She also became a major fundraiser for polio research. Her life was very full.

In 1985, at the age of 72, she faced emergency surgery. Her doctor insisted that she would need a transfusion in order to survive the operation but she was adamant to her faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses could absolutely not receive blood or organ donations. She told the doctor that she would not tolerate being transfused.

The four-hour operation, with no transfusion, was only partially successful. When she awoke she was in a hospital bed, outside her iron lung for the first time in 37 years. The doctors had routed a portable respirator into her lungs through a tracheotomy. The new form of breathing caused her panic, and she felt once again that she couldn’t catch her breath. As well, the tracheotomy prevented her from speaking. She died only three days later.

I learned some surprising facts about polio. Although we don’t see it here, in other parts of the world polio is alive and well, and sadly there still is no cure. The Rotary Club (ever wonder what they do?) has dedicated their organization to wiping out polio, and has had good success. Support the Rotarians and polio research so that sad stories like Laura Nesbitt’s will stop replaying.

2 Responses to "Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler"

  1. Angel Christine Bosten   August 11, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    Hi my name is angel Christine Bosten when I was a kid I lived across the street at 4325 la crescenta with prudence and mike. What a strong women she was. I’m sorry that she died but now she is free. I am so impressed she had people who loved her and allowed her to have a family. God bless you

  2. Michael W Love   March 7, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    I lived five houses down the hill from the lady in the Iron Lung if I walked by there at night or early evening it used to scare the heck out of me. I remember the panic that Polio used to bring to us all. My Mom used it to her advantage, “Take a nap or you might catch Polio. Also, the polio shots we all got at school. My dad worked for Southern Calif. Edison Co and when the Power would go out he had to go by the Iron Lung ladies house if there was no one there to do it he would use a hand pump to keep the Iron Lung running until the power would come on or a family member could take over. As always it is a pleasure to read your columns great memories. as always thanks

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