Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The last iron lungs

Charles Halsted
Davis, California, United States

Photograph of an iron lung
This photograph depicts an opened Emerson respirator, also known as an iron lung. Photo by Jim Gathany. Via CDC/ GHO/ Mary Hilpertshauser. Public Domain. Source

In the springtime of my internship year, I rotated onto the polio ward where I learned that poliomyelitis could kill by paralyzing the muscles of breathing. Eight years before, Salk had shown that injection of his vaccine of inactive virus could prevent polio about half the time. By nineteen sixty, Sabin had proven that this fatal disease could be prevented and cured by his oral vaccine.

Nevertheless, the Sabin oral vaccine arrived too late for the sickest patients who were doomed to spend the rest of their lives in iron lungs. In these body-sized devices lay the patients whose chests could not expand, who could not inhale deeply enough to remain alive.

Upon arrival on the polio ward, I discovered ten body-sized iron cylinders in two rows of five, each equipped with a suction device to promote respiration. I watched over the survivors by listening to their lungs at least once an hour. By reaching my stethoscope-holding hand through an opening in each iron cylinder, I could distinguish clear breathing from the gurgles of failed respiration, the harbinger of a downward spiral to death.

During my rotation, I worked with the night nurse, a middle-aged woman, an avid baseball fan. In my mind’s eye, I imagined my polio-stricken patients listening through their iron cages to the faint radio sounds of every game, silently cheering on their home team.

CHARLES H. HALSTED, MD, is a retired academic physician. He received his medical education at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, followed by internship and residency at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital and specialty training in gastroenterology at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Subsequently, he practiced medicine at Baltimore City Hospital and the University of California Davis. Following his retirement in 2015, he embarked on a new career in poetry. To date, he has published one chapbook, Breaking Eighty, and two poetry books, Extenuating Circumstances and On Razor-Thin Tires.

Highlighted Vignette Volume 13, Issue 4 – Fall 2021

Spring 2021



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