The Last of the Iron Lungs

"I was watching the news when I found myself suddenly possessed by the urge to knit a peach."

Last February, before we knew that the pandemic had already began to percolate across the United States, I wrote a story about an exhibit at the Health Museum of Houston called Outbreak.

The exhibit, which focused on how pandemics affect communities, and how a global economy allows diseases to spread faster than they ever have before, looked at several specific outbreaks to have hit Houston, including the AIDS epidemic, bubonic plague, and polio.

Houston’s status and a port city, its diverse population, and its warm climate have made it a prime location for diseases to flourish. During the polio outbreak of the 1950s and ‘60s, Harris County was second only to Los Angeles in the number of polio cases in the US. That led local leaders to solicit donations to study and treat the disease, which eventually led to the creation of Houston’s TIRR Memorial Hermann rehabilitation hospital and the founding of the Health Museum in 1969.

The exhibit was rich with images of Houston’s ”Victory Over Polio” campaign — lines of children outside a movie palace awaiting the vaccine, billboards over major local businesses advocating for the campaign, and pics of local celebs like the Colt 45s baseball player above, advocating for medical responsibility.

But one of the objects in the exhibit that most struck me was the iron lung. I’d seen them on TV, relics of the past, but I never realized that they came equipped with mirrors, tilted over the head of the patient, to allow a person who was dependent on the machine to have a view of the room and the people around them. That surviving a disease like polio meant spending hours of the day stuck in a machine that breathed for you. It was a tangible reminder of how much damage a disease could do, and how far we’d come from then.

Seeing images these past few months of everyday people getting the COVID-19 vaccine, specifically, frontline workers, has been extremely emotional. Living in Houston, which has one of the largest medical complexes in the world, means I have many friends who have been working tirelessly to provide care in the midst of this crisis, and I am so relieved to see then get the shot. In my pals’ Slack group, friends whose parents are nurses and doctors are sharing pictures of their relatives getting the jab, and the relief is palpable. We are not done with this thing by a long shot, and many of us will not be eligible for the vaccine for many more months, but every person who gets the vaccine makes us all safer.

In that same Slack group, someone recently shared this article about the last of the iron lung users, written in 2017. At the time, there were maybe three in the United States, people dependent on the archaic technology, and dependent on the knowledge of mechanically-handy friends when the machines inevitably break. I thought back to seeing that iron lung at the Health Museum, how visceral it felt to imagine what it might be like to be inside.

But another thing they all had in common is a desire for the next generations to know about them so we’ll realize how fortunate we are to have vaccines. “When children inquire what happened to me, I tell them the nerve wires that tell my muscles what to do were damaged by a virus,” Mona said. “And ask them if they have had their vaccine to prevent this. No one has ever argued with me.”

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I’ve written extensively about how, after a 10-year hiatus, I took up knitting again in late 2019, and how prescient it was, not knowing I’d need a steady, solitary, self-soothing hobby for 2020. The pattern that started it all was this peach, which was shared by a fellow knitter in my friends’ Slack group, and which I am sharing with you now for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

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