Woman Who Spent Years In Iron Lung Remembered

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Martha Mason, who lived more than 60 years in an iron lung, died last week at the age of 71 at her home in Lattimore, N.C. Mary Dalton, who directed a documentary about Mason, Martha In Lattimore, offers her insight.


We learned this weekend of the death of a woman who made the best of a terrible situation.

Polio left Martha Mason paralyzed from the neck down when she was 11. She spent the next 60 years in an iron lung, a seven-foot tube that encased all but her head. That was her plight, but there was so much more to her life in the small town of Lattimore, North Carolina.


The machine kept her alive, and though Mason was dealt a tough hand, she did more with it than was expected. She entertained, she made new friends, she even wrote a book, and she's a subject of a documentary film called "Martha in Lattimore."

(Soundbite of movie "Martha in Lattimore")

Ms. MARTHA MASON: To me, this has become such a normal thing that I don't - really, I don't ever think of it. I really never give it a lot of thought.

NORRIS: Mary Dalton is the filmmaker who created the documentary about Mason's life, and she joins me now from member station WFDD studio in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Welcome to the program, Ms. Dalton.

Ms. MARY DALTON (Director, "Martha in Lattimore"): Thank you.

NORRIS: Now, very few people these days understand what polio is and the long-term impact. I imagine few people even can picture an iron lung. Could you explain what it was like to live in an iron lung?

Ms. DALTON: Well, I don't know, since I didn't, but in terms of Martha's life and the way it appeared to me, of course she did not leave the room she was in. She had not left her house for many years. When she was younger, she was transported to college, where she graduated first in her class. But in later years, she really didn't leave the house.

NORRIS: How did she view her situation?

Ms. DALTON: Well, you know, a lot of people accused her of being a Pollyanna because she really was such a vibrant personality. We would talk about politics and all kinds of media things. We were both big readers, but also in later years, I sort of introduced her to a film world.

For her 70th birthday, my mom and I gave her a subscription to Netflix, which was extraordinary for her.

NORRIS: Now, do I understand this correctly? She would host dinner parties?

Ms. DALTON: Oh, yes. You know, there would be a table with a tablecloth, and the table would be pushed right up to the iron lung, and it was just like any other dinner party. And I think that's - I mean, she would tell you the reason she survived when so many others didn't was her excellent care that she received but also the fact that there was always something new she wanted to know. She met new people. She learned new things. She wrote a book. She - after she got her first computer in 1994, the whole world opened up to her in a new way. So, she really was an extraordinary person.

NORRIS: So I'm trying to imagine what it must have been like for her when she acquired that computer and the world suddenly came to her, and she was able to see and envision much of what she missed.

Ms. DALTON: One thing that did surprise me that I hadn't thought about, of course the computer made it possible for her to write her memoir, and the computer made it possible for her to go online and get recipes, and the computer brought her newspapers, and, you know, radio, all kinds of things that she did with the computer, but it also allowed her a degree of privacy.

With emailing and using the voice-activated program, she could have private correspondence and did not have to rely on someone else to write for her.

NORRIS: Mary Dalton, thank you very much for sharing stories with us.

Ms. DALTON: Thank you for letting me.

NORRIS: Martha Mason died last week at the age of 71. Mason had spent more than 60 years in an iron lung. She wrote about that experience in the book, "Breath," and she was featured in a documentary film called "Martha in Lattimore." Mary Dalton has been speaking with us. She is the documentary filmmaker.

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