Outage ends a long life in iron lung

MEMPHIS — A woman who defied medical odds and spent nearly 60 years in an iron lung after being diagnosed with polio as a child died Wednesday after a power failure shut down the machine that kept her breathing, her family said.

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Dianne Odell, 61, had been confined to the 7-foot-long metal tube since she was stricken by polio at age 3.

Family members were unable to get an emergency generator working after a power failure knocked out electricity to the family's residence near Jackson, about 80 miles northeast of Memphis, brother-in-law Will Beyer said.

"We did everything we could do, but we couldn't keep her breathing," Beyer said. "Dianne had gotten a lot weaker over the past several months, and she just didn't have the strength to keep going."

Capt. Jerry Elston of the Madison County Sheriff's Department said emergency crews could do little to help. The local power company reported spotty power outages in the area because of a tree that fell on a line.

Odell was afflicted with "bulbo-spinal" polio three years before a polio vaccine was discovered and largely stopped the spread of the crippling childhood disease.

She spent her life in the iron lung, cared for by her parents, other family members and aides provided by a nonprofit foundation. Though confined inside the 750-pound apparatus, Odell managed to get a high school diploma, take college courses and write a children's book about a "wishing star" named Blinky.

Odell's iron lung, similar to those used during the U.S. polio epidemics that peaked in the 1950s, was a cylindrical chamber with a seal at the neck. She lay on her back with only her head exposed and made eye contact with visitors through an angled mirror. She operated a TV set with a small blow tube and wrote on a voice-activated computer.

The positive and negative pressures produced by the machine forced air into her lungs and then expelled it.

Iron lungs were largely replaced by positive-pressure airway ventilators in the late 1950s that give users much more freedom of movement. But a spinal deformity from the polio kept Odell from wearing a more modern, portable breathing device.

Joan Headley of Post-Polio Health International in St. Louis said about 30 people in the United States still rely on iron lungs, but few users are confined to them all the time.

Caregivers could slide Odell's bedding out of her iron lung for basic nursing care but only briefly.

In a 2001 interview, Odell said she wrote her children's book to show youngsters, especially those with physical disabilities, that they should never give up. "It's amazing what you can accomplish if you see someone do the same thing," she said.

Outage ends a long life in iron lung 05/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 4:30pm]

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