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Portable Lungs


“Not until we have removed the shadow of the Crippler from the future of every child can we furl the flags of battle and still the trumpets of attack. The fight against infantile paralysis is a fight to the finish, and the terms are unconditional surrender.”

Those were the words of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. He was referring to poliomyelitis – or polio – the disease that had put him in his wheelchair.

In 1962, editor J. I. Rodale wrote, “In the earlier days, polio victims had their affected limbs splinted and bandaged into complete immobility until, even if there were a return of muscle power, the function had been partially or completely lost by atrophy of the limb. With the treatment devised by the gallant and forceful Australian nurse, Sister Kenny, a new attitude toward polio-paralyzed limbs was adopted,” he wrote. “She proved that action, not immobility was the key to bringing affected arms and legs back to usefulness.”

The polio virus attacks nerves in the spinal cord, causing paralysis of those parts of the body controlled by the infected nerves. Of crucial importance was the diaphragm, a muscle above the stomach that controls the lungs, which don’t have their own muscles. As the diaphragm moves up, it pushes air out, and when it moves down, air is sucked inward. If the polio virus attacks the nerves that control the diaphragm, patients can die of suffocation.

To combat this problem, Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw of Harvard Medical School introduced the iron lung in 1928. This sealed, tank-like contrivance served as the first form of artificial respiration. Polio patients lay inside a chamber with just their head showing at one end. Inside, the machine worked much like the bellows of an accordion. A vacuum within the chamber allowed patients’ lungs to fill with air, and a subsequent cycle of pressure forced them to exhale.

By 1952, the reported cases of polio reached an all-time high, and the public was panicking. As with previous epidemics, people grasped at straws, trying to understand what was causing the disease. Water was tested, and all possible remedies were tried. Parents were forced to climb ladders to visit their quarantined children through hospital windows.

Victims with paralyzed lungs were completely dependent on their mechanical breathing machines; if the electricity went out, their lives were instantly in danger. Patients in iron lungs also couldn’t be moved. The portable iron lung, invented in 1937, was a major breakthrough, because it could be switched to battery power in emergencies.

It was on this date in 1953 that Cass County got its first portable lung. It was given to St. Luke’s Hospital by the Fargo Kiwanis Club, which raised the money through a network of gumball machines. Before the machine could be officially presented, it was put into use by Dale Carlson, a 14 year-old patient who had been hospitalized in Devils Lake for the previous three weeks.

The Fargo Forum reported, “The portable lung consists of a large plastic case, covering the chest of the patient, connected to a respirator apparatus.” Indeed, the portable lung looked like a space-age device compared to its submarine-like predecessor.

Interestingly, the hospital’s iron lungs were maintained by the fire department... probably because they could be used to revive victims of smoke inhalation.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm