The 73-year-old woman who still sleeps in an iron lung

NPR and Radio Diaries recently reported on the life of Martha Lillard, who was diagnosed with polio at age 5 in 1953, and still sleeps every night in an iron lung — one of the last people in America who still relies on the old ventilator technology. Polio isn't really a problem these days — you can thank vaccines for that — so the iron lung has largely fallen to disuse. Although there are ventilators to help with other respiratory problems, none of them have ever quite worked as well for Lillard as the iron lung has.

Unfortunately, replacement parts and qualified service technicians are hard to come by:

In the 1990s, when her iron lung was breaking down, she called hospitals and museums that might have had old ones in storage. But they'd either thrown them away or didn't want to part with their collection. She eventually bought one from a man in Utah — the machine she still uses today.

The machines were once serviced by Philips Resperonics, but Lillard says the assistance she received from the company was minimal. Once, she says a technician was sent to service her machine and prepared to leave before putting the machine back together.


Wear on parts is her main issue now. The belts need to be replaced every few weeks, the cot inside every six months, the motor every 12 years or so.

Her most immediate need is collars. The collars create the critical airtight seal around the neck. Each one lasts only for a few months. And she has bought all the back stock of collars from places that don't produce them anymore.

As difficult as it must be to live for 70+ years with a respiratory failure from polio, it must still be pretty difficult having to explain to people that you need help with your iron lung.

Listen to the full story below:

Decades after polio, Martha is among the last to still rely on an iron lung to breathe [Erin Kelly and Alissa Escarce / NPR]

Image: Don Pinder via Florida Keys Public Library System / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)