Polio - Iron Lungs

It was "like a big cabinet lying on its side, lying down, and the patient's head was at one end and then there was a tight collar and the rest of the patient was in this sort of coffin like state, really. And you could open it up and tend to the patient, but most of the time it was kept closed. And why it was there...you used air pressure from a pump, an electric pump, and it put pressure on the patient's body that caused the lungs to - it pressed on the lungs, caused airr to go out, and then it caused a vacuum and air went in. So it was solely there to provide this pressure. And it was called an iron lung because it was a big old iron thing with a pump attached" (Interview: Lucy Willis).

Polio could paralyze the diaphragm, making it extremely difficult for its victims to breathe. Patients would be put into an iron lung to help them breathe and would not come out until they could breathe on their own again.

Lucy Willis, former dean of the College of Nursing at the University of Saskatchewan, remembers the polio epidemic and that isolation rooms were packed with polio victims so tight that the iron lungs had to be housed in the hallways. She worked fourteen to sixteen hours a day looking after the polio unit, with help from a regular staff and volunteers. While she learned a lot working in the polio unit, she would not like to repeat the experience, describing it as desperate. Nurses could not spend a large amount of time with each patient due to the number of patients.

Willis remembers a young boy who had to be in an iron lung.

"I remember a young lad named Rosea. He was about maybe nine, somewhere around there not any older. Big brown eyes, a beautiful little boy. And he had been flown in and he was in an iron lung. And his mother came in with him. But I remember Ms. Keeler, who was the Director of Nursing at the university. She came in and she looked at Rosea many times. And she said that Rosea said to her he wanted his legs massaged. And that was one thing you could do. You could take the thing off and let them breath a little bit for a while and massage them. And I guess she'd done this about six times already in about two hours, and he asked again, and she said, Oh, Rosea, I just did it. And he said, Just one more time. So she did it. He was a very appealing little boy. The thing about him was that his mother came in with him by air ambulance, and we were so busy, that mother was there with him for about two days. And I was going into the nurses' lunchroom and going to have a cup of coffee, and I asked her if she'd like to come in and have a cup of coffee and she started to cry. And I wondered what was wrong, so I said, Well, tell me what's wrong. And she said, I haven't had anything to eat for two days. I came in in the air ambulance. I didn't bring any money. And we were so busy we hadn't noticed that she hadn't left the child. So -- and it was Sunday morning, and I thought, I've got to do something for this poor mother. So I phoned the Catholic Welfare -- what do they call it? Catholic Social Service or whatever and Sister O'Brian was in charge of that and we all knew her. She was wonderful. I phoned there and she answered on the first ring. And I told her what had happened. I said, I have this woman and she needs some help and what -- can you do something? And she said, Yes. So she came right down. And she said to me, How did you know I'd be there? And I said, I didn't. I just hoped. And she said, I just walked into the office to pick up a book and the phone rang. So she took her and found her a place to stay and got her looked after. But that was kind of a miracle I thought. So Rosea is very much a memory of that time. There were lots of others like that, but he was one (Interview: Lucy Willis).

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