Iron Lung Patient Dies
May 28, 2008 1:55 PM   Subscribe

Dianne Odell passed away today. After contracting polio at age 3, she spent 58 years in an iron lung. "It's the only thing I know," she said. "I'm comfortable with it. I've never had a bedsore, which is remarkable." In 1998 she got a computer and, using voice dictation software, wrote a childrens' book. She died after the power failed and family members were unable to start a backup generator. As late as 1988 polio was still present in 125 countries around the world. Today it has been eradicated in all but 7 countries.
posted by GuyZero (36 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The book was apparently called "Less Light" and was about a star named "Blinky" but no trace of the book is to be found online.
posted by GuyZero at 1:58 PM on May 28, 2008

posted by procrastination at 2:09 PM on May 28, 2008

"Odell wrote a book, "Blinky Less Light," about the smallest star in heaven. The children's book, which took Odell 10 years to finish, has almost sold out of the 100,000 copies printed."
posted by Carol Anne at 2:10 PM on May 28, 2008

posted by zeoslap at 2:19 PM on May 28, 2008

I don't know which is worse - dying when the power goes out, or living in an iron lung for 58 years.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:24 PM on May 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

That is the most senseless death I've ever heard of. Thing should have had battery backups good for several hours at least.
posted by phrontist at 2:34 PM on May 28, 2008

M.C. Lo-Carb! wrote: "I don't know which is worse - dying when the power goes out, or living in an iron lung for 58 years."

I would say it would be because you couldn't get the backup power back on. But only because I wouldn't want to leave my family with that guilt.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:34 PM on May 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't want to leave my family with that guilt.

No kidding. I'm not sure I could live with that much guilt. How terrible for them.
posted by aramaic at 2:57 PM on May 28, 2008


I had no idea these machines were still in such wide usage. What a terrible contraption to have to carry over from a previous generation, how sad that there are scores of people who just missed out on vaccination stuck in these things.
posted by fire&wings at 2:59 PM on May 28, 2008

posted by Mental Wimp at 3:01 PM on May 28, 2008

Only one backup generator? I'm kind of stunned that they put all their eggs in one basket this way... you would think they'd have a second unit or an UPS on hand.
posted by mr. creosote at 3:03 PM on May 28, 2008

Thanks Brandon. This picture in particular depressed the absolute shit out of me.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:05 PM on May 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

scores of people who just missed out on vaccination

I believe I once read an interview with the last man who caught polio in the US. He got it just shortly before his entire grade school class was vaccinated. Like, a week or two before. He didn't seem as bitter as I would have been.

As for wide usage, the number that keeps getting thrown around is about 35 people in iron lungs, though one article indicated about a dozen of those had been moved to ventilators. Dianne was a minor celebrity - she was mentioned in a book by Jane Seymour and talked to Christopher Reeve shortly after his accident. I expect that like war vets there will be no domestic polio victims left in a few years. And at that point people will begin to forget why we vaccinate children.
posted by GuyZero at 3:07 PM on May 28, 2008

But at least with anti-vaccination hysteria in both the developed and developing world, future generations can look forward to a polio comeback!
posted by rodgerd at 3:09 PM on May 28, 2008

I don't have the strength this woman possessed, because were I faced with a choice between death and life in an iron lung, I think I'd rather be dead.

posted by The Card Cheat at 3:11 PM on May 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

And at that point people will begin to forget why we vaccinate children.

This is what worries me. Already there's an anti-immunization movement at work and I fear it spreading even further. I know a few people, religious types but otherwise quite intelligent, well-educated, well-read, upper-middle-class, who don't take their (many and constantly multiplying) kids to get shots of any sort.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:14 PM on May 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

scores of people who just missed out on vaccination

There will always be the regrettable few who miss out on life-saving technologies. When they find the cure for cancer or diabetes, there will always be those who will be too far gone to take advantage of the knowledge. For that matter, think of the millions of our ancestors who died prematurely because they just didn't know about bacteria or couldn't take advantage of stuff we take for granted, like penicillin or sterile surgery techniques.
posted by Dave Faris at 3:15 PM on May 28, 2008

I have actually taken care of a patient in an iron lung; in fact it was a situation very similar to the one described here. It is surprising to me that a power failure killed her for several reasons. For one, iron lungs can be operated manually; it requires some effort but is possible. Second, the electric company is supposed to know which customers are on home ventilators or other life support devices and make every effort to restore power to them quickly. Finally, they state that "emergency crews could do little to help", yet managing respiratory failure is a basic skill in emergency situations (ABC-Airway, Breathing, Circulation is the basis of most emergency medical algorithms). Clearly there were multiple breakdowns in the system for this to happen.

Another fact about iron lungs and other negative pressure ventilators is that they are actually closer to the normal physiology of breathing than more "modern" positive pressure ventilators. For this reason there is a scaled down version of the iron lung available called a cuirass ventilator that is much less cumbersome than an iron lung. As the article states, though, she had too much scoliosis to use one of those; that was the same problem my patient had.

Fascinating story; she was definitely someone to be admired for her drive to live and be a part of life despite her polio. I was especially dismayed to read that she contracted polio at age three; I have a daughter that age and would be devastated if something like that happened to her.

posted by TedW at 3:16 PM on May 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

I had no idea these machines were still in such wide usage.

According to the site I linked above, there are about 40 people nationwide that still use iron lungs. In some cases they are only used while sleeping or another intermittent schedule.
posted by TedW at 3:19 PM on May 28, 2008

I don't understand how they lay prone for years much less weeks or months. NASA is doing experiments of this sort to see how bodies react (Mars mission). Russian experiments showed a real breakdown in bodily functions after a couple months.
posted by stbalbach at 3:56 PM on May 28, 2008

My uncle missed the vaccine by just a few years. He was four when he got polio; his first memory is a nurse taking him over to the window of the hospital and saying "See down there? That's your family. Wave to your family." They didn't know how polio spread so they wouldn't let his parents in to visit for fear they'd pass it to the other children.

He's fine now, apart from minor facial paralysis.

I think I won't tell him about Dianne Odell.
posted by hippugeek at 4:08 PM on May 28, 2008

How about a sadistic Nazi pedophile in an iron lung?
posted by stinkycheese at 4:15 PM on May 28, 2008

I expect that like war vets there will be no domestic polio victims left in a few years.

If by a few years you mean 30 or maybe more .The peak of the polio epidemic was in the 50's and the infected were usually under 20. Many recovered with few symptoms as well. They have a way to go yet before they are all gone.
posted by srboisvert at 4:39 PM on May 28, 2008

You ever hear of a little show called Branded? Arthur Digby Sellers wrote 156 episodes. Bulk of the series, Dude. Not exactly a lightweight.

It was the first thing I thought of when an iron lung was mentioned.
posted by LilBucner at 4:45 PM on May 28, 2008

I don't understand how they lay prone for years much less weeks or months.

The biggest problem is bedsores (decubitus ulcers in medspeak) and that is addressed by moving bedridden patients every few hours to avoid prolonged preeeure on any particular place. There are a number of beds designed to avoid this complication but they are incompatible with an iron lung. If the patient has even a little motor function left they will move enough to lessen the chance of bedsores developing. They are still very common in spinal cord injury patients, for example. They are also completely preventable and the fact that they are not prevented is yet another example of US healthcare failing its patients.

The studies you mention generally addressed the issue of muscle atrophy through disuse; this is a potential problem but since polio patients cannot use their muscles in the first place it is not completely applicable here. Medical types will know that all of this is a gross oversimplification, but I hope I am giving everyone the gist of things.
posted by TedW at 4:48 PM on May 28, 2008


Polio was still very much a threat when I was a small child. My biggest fear, for years, was contracting polio and having to live in one of those iron lungs. I had no idea anyone was still using them. And really--no adequate backup power, in this day and age? Yikes. Well, rest her soul.
posted by etaoin at 5:05 PM on May 28, 2008


in fact,


i wish i knew how to make a bigger dot. what a life. what a death. what a world.
posted by CitizenD at 5:20 PM on May 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Odd, until this posting, I had thought of iron lungs as exclusively for polio victims, because that early impression was so strong.

We got polio vaccines before I started first grade but it was too late for one kid in our class. Danny was on crutches with heavy braces on his legs and was an unpleasant little bastard, as I recall, often trying to whack people with his crutches. With good reason, I'd say in hindsight. When the oral vaccine came out, it was like a party--one Sunday, entire families from all over town lined up at the local elementary school to sip the vaccine. That went a lot better than the nasty needle vaccine--a sequence of four of them, I believe. I distinctly recall jumping off the table trying to escape the doctor as he came near with that long, ugly needle.
posted by etaoin at 5:34 PM on May 28, 2008

I expect that like war vets there will be no domestic polio victims left in a few years.

I fear we will never run out of war vets.
posted by DU at 5:53 PM on May 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

This, and my parent's stories about relatives that died from diseases that we have vaccines for, is exactly why I get my son vaccinated.
posted by echolalia67 at 6:28 PM on May 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

The last link in the FPP is several years out of date, and we missed, again, eradicating polio in 2005, as we have, every year, for 19 years, when the WHO first estimated in 1988, that eradication was possible "within the year." The current status of the Global Polio Eradication project is here, and as you can see, there are more cases year-to-date in 2008, than there were in 2007, with new cases this year in 12 countries. Nigeria, in particular, remains a virulent reservoir of wild virus, which. between 2003 and 2005, caused cases in 20 previously disease free countries.

Polio, it turns out, is a wily, tough thing in the wild. The current effort is short $490 million for the 2008-2009 operations (.pdf pie chart). Resource planning is ongoing for eradication efforts through 2012, and the continuing annual eradication failures are becoming enough of a PR problem that no one is seriously talking about a fixed date for eradication any longer. Polio is proving harder to eradicate than smallpox was, and as we've learned the hard way, the funding gaps in vaccination efforts, and continuing problems with the low cost oral live-virus vaccines, have "let the cat out of the bag," in several instances.

We've known for several years that some of the oral live-virus vaccines we have can actually cause a version of the disease in a small percentage of those we try to protect. Accordingly, oral live virus vaccines have been withdrawn in the U.S. since 2000. But they remain the primary tools for vaccination programs in the third world, because their lower cost of administration, versus injected killed virus vaccines, stretches the eradication programs limited financial resources. But so long as we must give 200 to 250 million children oral vaccinations each year, we are, inevitably, creating several hundred vaccine induced polio cases, indistinguishable from cases caused by the wild virus. And those cases, as much as the continuing financial costs for eradication efforts and vaccination programs in the first world, are the real costs of the continuing failure of polio eradication.

Sadly, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has had trouble getting its financial commitments from pledged donors, for much of its existence. While the year end status reports generally paint a positive picture of eradication efforts in each year, as they do again for 2007, the follow up reports, and the continuing failure to achieve eradication, showcase these problems:
"... Reaching a polio-free world requires:

1. Further intensifying immunization activities in endemic areas with a mix of monovalent and trivalent vaccines.
2. Improving the ability to reach every child, particularly in northern Nigeria, Bihar in India, southern Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan.
3. Rapidly securing multi-year commitments for the financial resources necessary to implement polio eradication strategies.
4. Swiftly and fully implementing outbreak response guidelines in the remaining re-infected countries and taking steps to minimize the risk and consequences of international spread of polio.
5. Strengthening AFP surveillance at sub-national levels in central Africa and parts of Asia."
Back in 2004, I suggested to someone that, for the cost of the TV advertising spent by the Kerry and Bush camps in that Presidential campaign, that polio could have been eradicated from the world in 18 months. Actually, it turned out that those guys spent about $150 million more than it would have cost to fully fund the polio eradication effort back then (for 204-2005), on TV ads nobody now remembers. And, we still have polio in the wild, and in our vaccination efforts, to contend with. Color me cynical, but I'm thinking the same things again now, and I'm really looking forward to enduring the fall TV blitz of worthless political advertising here in America, in 2008, while I check the polio case count monthly.
posted by paulsc at 8:30 PM on May 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

I'm so sorry for her family. In one of the articles about her, she notes her parents were getting older. Perhaps it was too hard for an octogenarian to get the back-up generator or to use it. Or perhaps she was being looked after by someone providing a break -- an aunt or a cousin or something -- and they struggled to hook it up. Apparently, when the machine broke down before, they kept it going by hand crank for 3 hours.
posted by acoutu at 9:10 PM on May 28, 2008

It is surprising to me that a power failure killed her for several reasons

TedW, there are more details in this local story. She had developed problems swallowing following recent strokes and could no longer tolerate variance in the iron lung's pressure. When she stopped breathing, her father -- who has dementia (and her mother has Alzheimer's) -- began CPR. It sounds like she was in a very fragile health state when this happened, and the people around her were no longer physically and mentally fit enough to compensate.
posted by dhartung at 10:56 PM on May 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I suggested to someone that, for the cost of the TV advertising spent by the Kerry and Bush camps in that Presidential campaign, that polio could have been eradicated from the world in 18 months

This seems a very loose moral linkage. One could as easily identify casino gambling, alcohol or tobacco consumption, video games, fast food, or any other behavior and say that money could be used to eradicate polio. Of course it could, but why is any one particular behavior more worthy of censure?

I think the Rotary International Polio Plus program has the right conclusion when it points out that polio cases have declined by 99 percent since the 1980s and some five million cases of disabilty and 250,000 deaths have been prevented. And given that a worldwide scourge is now all but confined to two particular regions, we do seem to have eradication in sight, even if the effort is taking much longer than we believed it would. We HAVE eradicated polio in the Western Hemisphere, where there have been no indigenous cases since 1991.

Rotary is trying to raise $100 million to be matched dollar for dollar by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Anyway, there's a video here with some heartbreaking images from the US epidemic.
posted by dhartung at 11:15 PM on May 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

My mother had polio as a child and can't use her right leg (has a caliper). I remember as a kid reading a storybook about Elizabeth Kenny's treatment of polio patients, and 'I can jump puddles', the first section of Alan Marshall's autobiography, tells about his childhood in the bush after being crippled by polio.
posted by jacalata at 1:30 AM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

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