The Woman in the Iron Lung
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.