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Are Iron Lungs a Thing of the Past?

Updated May 16, 2024
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Martha Lillard and Paul Alexander don't know each other, but they share something very unique: As of 2021, they are the only two Americans who still require an iron lung to survive. The mechanical devices that were designed in the early 20th century to help polio victims to breathe have largely become obsolete thanks to the virtual eradication of the disease, but Lillard and Alexander have continued to rely on theirs, off and on, for decades.

Martha Lillard, who was born in Oklahoma, was 5 years old when she became sick and was diagnosed with polio in 1953. She was placed inside an iron lung, and while other similar patients eventually found other methods of survival, Lillard still sleeps in hers every night.

In 1953, Paul Alexander was 6 and living in Dallas when he became extremely ill with polio, which left him paralyzed. With the help of physical therapy, he learned to breathe without the iron lung and was able to spend time outside of it, but at the age of 75, he is once again confined to the contraption full time.

The life-saving iron lung:

  • In 1928, an 8-year-old girl in Boston became the first person to survive polio thanks to an iron lung.

  • During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, a shortage of ventilators prompted the creation of new versions of the iron lung.

  • During the height of the polio epidemic in 1952, the United States recorded 57,628 cases in one year.

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