Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ventilation, Part 15 (fictionalized history)

(In 1952, polio reached its peak in the United States with 21,000 cases of paralytic polio. The first polio vaccine was introduced in 1955. By 1965, the total paralytic cases had fallen to 61. In this fictionalized history series, we will be experiencing the aftermath of polio, before the dramatic triumph of a vaccine. If you're just joining us, go back to Part 1.)

Forty-Four Years and One Month Since Hospital Admission
August 1996 (51 years old)

"Man, you've got some tunnels down here," Pete said.

His escort, the mechanical engineer, screwed an open light bulb deeper into the socket. The darkness retreated.

"This campus was built before the turn of the century," the man said. "Lots of buildings have been isolated from the power plant now. Like the new hospital pavilion. This steam is coming in from the dormitories."

"Way better efficiency."

The engineer nodded. "We used to really have to bake the dorms to heat the old university hospital when it was in this building."

"Just offices now?"

"Mostly." The engineer shined his flashlight farther back and illuminated a crisp, old tarp. "Here we are."

The air smelled stale. But not much mildew. The tunnels seemed pretty dry.

"How long has it been down here?" Pete said.

"Oh Jesus. Thirty years, maybe."

"Well, let's take a look."

Pete reached and pulled. Dust billowed up and swirled in the flashlight beam.

"Somebody decided to keep one around a long time ago," the engineer said. "But not many know it's here now."

"Good thing your CEO likes to take weird tours down here."

"Yeah. He loves the tunnels and boilers and shit like that."

Pete punched his mechanical screwdriver into four screws and pulled off part of the metal housing.

"Right model?" the engineer asked.

"Close enough. We're damn lucky, I can tell you that. This company stopped making this shit eighteen years ago. You couldn't sell your soul to get new parts for it."


"We called seventeen hospitals before we got lucky with this here one," Pete said.

"How does she look?"

Pete wiped some grime with a rag from his back pocket. "Well, the exchanger looks good. But we won't know for sure until we install it."

"You really still got someone in an iron lung?"

"Yep. Polio. Since back in the 50's. Great lady. Her name is Julia."

"Must be fucking hell."

Pete angled himself to get deeper in. "She doesn't seem to mind it so much. She's got a great sense of humor."

"Well, I can't imagine living in one of these things. I'd blow my brains out if I could get someone to do it for me."

"Piss!" Pete pressed a cut finger into his rag. The cloth had lots of dark decorations.

"What are you going to do when you can't fix it any more?"

Pete dabbed blood from the slice. "There's still a bunch of these squirreled away in basements. I'll keep it running."

"For her sake, I hope you do. She's gonna be happy to see you."

Pete smiled. "Yeah, she was pretty worried. The lung sounds pretty sick right now. But it's still pumping."

"You need a hand?"

"You mind if I grab a few more parts off this thing?" Pete said. "These motors scare me. If one quits.... But then again, they built some serious shit back then."

"Go ahead. None of this is doing anybody good down here."

"Thanks. Julia would kiss you if she were here."

The engineer repositioned the light as Pete expanded his dissection.

On to Part 16.
Go back to Part 14.


Anonymous said...

One could say "how brave" to deal with that kind of tragedy for so long ... but I'm with the worker. I'd rather blow my brains out than live like that. But I guess that some others might be said to live in a kind of iron lung (prison) of another kind ... so unless faced with the situation ... how would any of us deal with it?

Anonymous said...

How does Julia do it? How does she keep her spirits up? My heart bleeds for her.

Sarah Hina said...

I like how you showed us the technical challenges of keeping Julia alive. She is simultaneously a historical artifact and a person of flesh and feeling. Which is why I winced when the engineer made the comment about blowing his brains out.

She treasures her life, in all its richness. And Pete understands that.

Charles Gramlich said...

I bet there are a lot of exactly these types of old treasures laying around at Universities. I remember going to MIT once and seeing thousands of shrouded instruments.

Ello said...

How fascinating! I had no idea that an iron lung would still be in use in 1996. Wouldn't new technology have replaced it? Oh wow. How wrenching for poor Julia.

Geraldine said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Geraldine wrote:

You've taken so many interesting twists and turns with this story Jason. Replacement parts and repairs...part of this life that Julia has been given to live. Excellent as usual. I am waiting to see what happens next.

(I've edited out a reference to a news story that I'd rather not have mentioned at this point. *hint* *hint* :) )

Chris said...

There was a BBC item about a polio patient. Not sure if you've seen it or not.

paisley said...

is there any truth in that jason?? are there still people in iron lungs?? and if so why????

Anonymous said...

Aggie, I tend to think that most of us would choose life in any form over the alternative. Only if pain becomes unbearable do we prefer to risk the end of all things.

Selma, I imagine there are joys in every day. Even small ones can make life worth living.

Sarah, that's the heart of this piece. The hard knowledge that not even the machine can be depended on over time. Year by year, these people have been transformed into living artifacts. (And yes, Pete knows. :) )

Charles, I'd love to take a tour myself. The wonders we would find!

Ello, there are a number still in use to this day. Apparently, they do a better, more thorough job with respiration. The more modern positive pressure devices are thought by some to be the equivalent of a long, slow suffocation.

Geraldine, that really basic problem of keeping the machine running fascinates me.

Chris, I have to go take a look at that. I hope that each of the survivor's stories is told in one form or another.

Paisley, yes, to this day, there are people in iron lungs. I understand that long term, they do a better, more healthy job with respiration.

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

Jason, another interesting and well written installment. Unbelievable how they had to go to the hospital "junkyards" to find parts. You have put me in mind of a childhood friend who was stricken with polio. She would always say to me, "Let's go outside and do cartwheels in the grass." Of course she meant we would go outside and I would do cartwheels while she watched, giggled, and clapped. Love her heart.

Vicariously...vicarioulsy - we go through life.

Anonymous said...

Kaye, what a poignant remembrance. Cartwheels in the grass.... I can almost hear her calling to you. And see her huge smile.

Thanks so much for sharing that.

Geraldine said...

I will look forward to reading your references to that news story...sorry about 'jumping the gun'. Great minds eh!!! :<)