In the fifties, America experienced the most devastating and frightening epidemic since Typhoid Fever and The Black Plague.
of young children and many adults died from Infantile Paralysis... better known as Polio. Those who survived the crippling disease were left crippled, paralyzed, and---all too often---unable to breath. Far-too-many children were so completely paralyzed....they
were forced to live in 800 pound Steel Capsules called IRON LUNGS that forced air in and out of their lungs...making the paralyzed lungs breathe by mechanical means.
As of 2019, there are
only three Polio Survivors still kept alive with Iron Lungs. One of the three is a 72 year old man who's been living in his Iron Lung since the age of six years....when Polio infected his body amd paralyzed him from the neck down.
Iron Lungs are no longer manufactured, parts aren't available, and the gigantic steel capsules are considered obsolete yet....for three polio survivors...Iron Lungs are their only link to life. Iron Lungs control these survivors
every breath and---should their machines suddenly stop---death is imminent..
The miracle of the Salk Vaccine came too late for too many and--we must never forget those who were forced to live
in Iron Lungs--in order to survive.
In my opinion, America's last three polio survivors--those who've lived almost all their lives in Iron Lungs--are Heroes.
In 1990, shortly before traveling to China to begin my Great Wall journey, I read an emotionally-charged
article in the Houston Post. It touched my heart in so many ways--I copied the article-- tucked it in my purse--- and re-read the disturbing story--- endless times.
child of the fifties, I lived the fear associated with polio and with the national warnings to: avoid crowds, public swimming pools, movie theaters---all the crowded places where the polio virus could pass from one stranger to another. I was aware of
polio’s symptoms: “Seek medical attention immediately if you experience any or all of the following: A violent headache, high and persistent fever, breathing difficulties, painful muscles, or numbness in any area of the body.”
Yesterday, hidden in a long-forgotten folder, I found the now-fragile article. Reading it again, 29 years later, I knew it was time to write about Alta Jeanne Drake, the polio survivor who
lived in an iron lung for 39 years, before being shot to death by her father.
An only child, Jeanne Drake graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1950 with majors in History
and Religion. Six months later, she married. Her happy world suddenly crumbled when, early in 1951, she was attacked by the polio virus. Within hours, she suffered complete paralysis. For the next 39 years, An Iron Lung served as Jeanne's permanent
Loss became her constant companion when, in 1956, just one week before Christmas, her husband left her. At the same time, Jeanne’s mother learned she
was going blind and, ten years later, died.
Jeanne’s father immediately took over as his daughter’s most-devoted caregiver. Although two well-paid attendants lived
in the guest quarters behind the main house, Jeanne's father, Ammy Drake, moved his bed into his daughter's room--three feet from her Iron Lung-- to care for her day and night.
the father and daughter spent hours watching TV programs, listening to “talking” books, and discussing current events. They enjoyed visits from friends, many who attended various churches nearby.
For years, Jeanne used a mouth stick to type letters to friends, strangers, acquaintances, using a typewriter--mounted on a shelf above her head—which she lowered by blowing into a sensitized-switch attached to her Iron Lung. But….shortly
before she died, her health had begun to decline and typing—something she loved---became impossible.
Early that July morning in 1990, a caretaker found the bodies of Jeanne
and her father. The 61 year old polio survivor’s Iron Lung—her home for 39 years--- was open, unplugged, and deadly quiet. Jeannie was lying on her back in her usual position, with both eyes closed…as if in a deep sleep. She’d been
shot twice in the chest.
Three feet away from the Iron Lung, resting in his favorite armchair, was Jeanne’s father…shot in the head with a 52 caliber revolver. The note
clutched in his hand said “I couldn’t take care of her anymore. There was no one around who would care for her or love her like me….her father.”
soon learned Jeanne’s 92-year-old father had been told---one week earlier-- his lymphatic cancer had spread from his throat to his lungs…and he had only weeks to live.
of Jeanne’s church friends felt certain the actions taken that July day…were the right actions. Jeanne would have been completely alone without her father. In fact, one said Jeanne’s fear of being alone and institutionalized, probably led
her to devise the killing/suicide.
So, for all Jeanne's loving friends.....everything is normal again. They are happy knowing Jeanne and her loving parents are together…with
no-more pain, no-more sickness, and no-more need for an Iron Lung.