In the fifties, America experienced the most devastating and frightening epidemic since Typhoid Fever and The Black Plague. Thousands 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-- too often--unable to breathe.
Far-too-many children were so completely paralyzed--they were forced to live in 800 pound Steel Capsules called IRON LUNGS.
THESE huge, steel containers-- forced
air in and out of the paralyzed lungs---making the lungs breathe by mechanical means.
As of 2019, there are only three Polio Survivors still kept alive with Iron
Lungs. The 72 year old man pictured on my Website's home page-- has been living in his Iron Lung since the age of six years--when Polio infected his body, paralyzing 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 most all their lives in Iron Lungs—are the true heroes.
In 1990, shortly before traveling to
China to begin my Great Wall journey, I read an emotionally-charged article in the Houston Post. I copied the article, tucked it in my purse, and re-read the disturbing story --numerous times. The newspaper article touched my heart. A 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 home. Loss became her constant companion when, in 1956, just one week before Christmas, her husband left her. That was also the 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. Together, 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.” Investigators soon learned that Jeanne’s 92-year-old father
had been told---one week earlier—that his lymphatic cancer had spread from his throat to his lungs--and he had only weeks to live.
Several of Jeanne’s
church friends were convinced that the actions taken that July day…were the right actions. Jeanne would have been completely alone without her father. In fact, one said that 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 that Jeanne and her parents are together---with no-more pain, no-more sickness, and no-more need for an Iron Lung.