(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.)
Fifty-Five Years and Three Months Since Hospital Admission
October 2007 (63 years old)
Fierce, heaven light slashed through the black windows.
Blue and violent.
The night nurse waited for the rumble of thunder. Impatient, it rattled the windows. The storm gusted and marched closer. Looked like they sat in the firing line.
The nurse glanced at the board.
No call bells yet. That was good at least.
The ones chronically awake tended not to care about weather, and the sleepy ones need way more to crack through those calloused ears.
But they would wake eventually, and with her luck, all at once.
A vicious crack and boom landed right outside the building.
She jolted from the shock.
The red exit sign glowed in the fresh darkness.
She hurried to the window and saw a maple tree laying in two tangled halves. Smoke, or maybe steam, curled from splintered wood.
The lights surged. From the emergency generator. But something wasn't right. They pulsed three times down to a sickly yellow.
Out by the maple tree, a brilliant plume of electric sparks exploded like hot fire works. The generator was by that tree. The assisted living home winked back to black.
The phone rang.
The nurse rushed over.
"I just got an emergency alarm," a groggy voice said. The administrator was waking up. "What's going on?"
"Lightning strike! No power!"
"The generator's out!"
"Jesus," he said.
Cold sweat erupted all over the nurse's panicked movements. "The ventilators!"
"Call 911. How many patients?"
"Wait. I'll call. You get portable oxygen on those patients. Better than nothing."
Black nausea rocked the nurse's stomach. "Julia...."
"Two, maybe three minutes. I'm not sure."
"You have to operate the iron lung manually," he said. "I'm on my way."
"I don't know how!"
"Levers on the side. They move the diaphragm. Go!"
"I don't know!"
The nurse slammed down the phone and ran.
She skidded into Julia's black doorway.
How strange, the silence.
No clanging, mechanical breaths.
Several months ago, I learned of the death of Dianne Odell, who was confined to an iron lung for nearly 60 years following a Polio infection she contracted at three years of age. Her courageous life was cut short by a power outage during a thunderstorm in May 2008. Years before, her father kept her alive during a power outage by hand-operating her iron lung for hours until the National Guard brought a generator. After that experience, the family purchased a generator for the house. Unfortunately, on the night of the power outage, they could not start the generator. Dianne passed away before help arrived.
I was so moved by the story and the plight of Polio victims whose iron lungs are no longer manufactured or officially maintained that I wanted to write this series. This story is not Dianne Odell's story. Julia is my creation, my attempt to understand some of the pain, and joys, of life so severely affected by disease.
I dedicate Julia to all those who have suffered because of Polio--the victims as well as their families. I hope history never forgets them. I hope we will always celebrate their lessons of the extraordinary reach and triumph of the human condition.