This polio survivor is one of the last still using an iron lung ventilator Martha Lillard had just turned 5 years old when polio incapacitated her. She still uses a form of the ventilator that saved her life as a child — though now she worries about replacement parts.

Decades after polio, Martha is among the last to still rely on an iron lung to breathe

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In the first half of the 20th century, the disease known as polio myelitis panicked Americans. Thousands were paralyzed when the virus attacked their nervous systems. In the worst cases, people's breathing muscles stopped working, and they were placed in an iron lung, a large machine that encapsulated their entire bodies from the neck down. As vaccines became available, cases dropped, and gradually, iron lungs became obsolete. The last ones were manufactured in the late 1960s. Martha Lillard is one of the last two Americans still using an iron lung. From Radio Diaries, this is her story.

MARTHA LILLARD: OK, this is the sound of the motor.


LILLARD: My name is Martha Lillard, and I live in Oklahoma. And I have spent 66 years of my life sleeping in an iron lung. It's a big metal cylinder with a cot that rolls in and out. It has a - leather bellows on the end of it. When the bellows goes out, that's when you breathe in. At the end of the day when I get in there, it's like a very deep breath. And a lot of pain that I've been having throughout the day pretty much is gone. But the main problem I've had with it is just parts. It probably scares me more than I would like to admit, the iron lung breaking down and I wouldn't be able to breathe, and - you know, I mean, if it breaks down, I don't last too long.


LILLARD: Around 1952, I think, it was really a serious epidemic year for polio - '52 to '53.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Deserted beaches became a sign of the crippler's presence. No swimmers or boaters where crowds would normally be in summertime - a children's playground with not a child in sight.

LILLARD: I remember my mother being careful, so she pretty much kept us at home.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It was as though people had shut themselves up in their houses, trying to hide from an unseen and deadly enemy, not daring even to venture upon the streets.

LILLARD: But I had been wanting to have my fifth birthday party at our local amusement park. It was just a small little park. And I think that's where I caught the polio. The day before I got sick, my neck was kind of sore. My throat was sore. But I went to bed and went to sleep. And when I woke up, it hurt really bad. I couldn't raise my head off the pillow. And I could hear my dad in the bathroom brushing his teeth, and my mom was putting the laundry in the dryer. So I just kind of wanted to lie there and listen to that for a little while because I knew once I told them about this, it was going to be very different.

After a few minutes, I called them in there, and I just told them I had polio.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: As epidemics grew in community after community, a steady stream of victims was rushed to hospitals - men, women, children - especially children.

LILLARD: I was in what they call isolation. It was in the top room of the hospital. I just deteriorated real fast. I turned blue from lack of oxygen. So then they determined to put me in the iron lung.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at the business end of an iron lung. And that sound that you'll hear is the air being forced into the lungs so that the patient can breathe.


LILLARD: The minute they put me in it I woke up, and I felt so good because I'd been feeling so bad. It was like it fixed everything. I was breathing again.

I was in the hospital six months, and Dr. Garrison told me I could come home around Christmas. I did have to pretty much be in the iron lung full time. Mother would get me out for 30 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour. The focus was to be independent, to get as much like I had been as before.


LILLARD: I never got to do all the things that I wanted to, but there was a friend of mine who taught me to look in a way that I had never really looked at things before. She was my neighbor, Karen Rapp. Karen taught me to look at a small world. She noticed a lot of insects, and we would get on the ground and check out the ants and how they functioned. We would build little villages on the ground, tiny little grass huts and things. I learned to look at small things and to really appreciate them. There's much more to see if you really look for it.

I could pretty much do anything I wanted in my teens, 20s, 30s. Now, when I got into my 60s and now my 70s, you know, I'm much more limited in what I can do.

Well, it's difficult, you know, because basically I'm alone all the time. I have gotten trapped in the iron lung a couple of times. Like last October, we had an ice storm come through here, a terrible ice storm. And I had no power. And ordinarily my generator would come on, but the battery had died on it. So I was lying there in the cold. It's like being buried alive almost. You know, it's so scary. And so I thought I'd better call 911. They said, I'm sorry. This number isn't available. So obviously the cellphones - the towers weren't working. I was having trouble breathing. And I remember saying out loud to myself, I'm not going to die. I'm not going to die. And then the cellphone finally started working. And so people came from 911, so then everything was OK.


LILLARD: I don't like having to be in the iron lung. I would rather I didn't have to use it. That was my big goal, was to be free of that. But I never did really become independent of it. People have said, Martha doesn't want to be modern. You know, she's dependent on the iron lung. I have assessed this thing, and I have tried every kind of ventilation - the NEV-100, positive pressure, the Monaghan, the Thompson, the Emerson wrap, which is basically a big piece of plastic that wrapped around your body. The iron lung is the most efficient and the best and the most comfortable way.

So I just wanted people to understand that it's not, oh, I want to be in the iron lung. That's not true. I would rather not need it at all. But sometimes when I get in there, I say, thank you, you know? It feels wonderful to get into it. It's the thing that's been there that saved my life, and I know that it's the only thing that's kept me here.

CORNISH: Martha Lillard in Oklahoma. This story was produced by Erin Kelly and Alissa Escarce and edited by Deborah George, Ben Shapiro and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries. To hear more about Martha Lillard's life, visit the Radio Diaries podcast.

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