Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Ventilation, Part 17, Final (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.)

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.

"Holy moley."

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...."

"How long?"

"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!"

"Which side?!"

"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.


Absolute silence.

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.


Anonymous said...

A great series Jason ... and close to my heart as I had a sister who suffered in this way. Albeit she was luckier than most and recovered sufficiently to come out of an iron lung. I cannot imagine a life dictated to by a generator and snuffed out by a power outage. Still, I hope they are all in a better place now. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

iLL Man said...

Brilliant stuff Jason. Thanks!

Sarah Hina said...

The silence says it all.

Bravo, Jason. You were a conduit for Dianne and all others touched by polio throughout this series. They're no longer ghosts to me, or simply victims. You gave them breath, body, and dimension. You gave us Julia. And even in silence, she won't be forgotten.

Charles Gramlich said...

Very powerful. This almost works as flash fiction in its own right. Or it could make a great short story. What a powerful connection with the true story you spoke of. I can see her dad working that system, working, working, working. Man that's a powerful image.

Vesper said...

Jason, I read the whole series but sometimes I found it too difficult to comment.
The sadness and the outrage at fate’s choices are immense.
Your tribute is extraordinary.

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

I am fighting back some stinging tears, Jason.

And to read about Dianne - ah, what agony!

Thank you for this well written, thought provoking series. I am glad to have known Julia. There are so many brave, courageous people in our world fighting everything from A to Z. Here's to all of them and their families!

paisley said...

i am so glad you clued us in the epilogue there... i always felt there was a reason you imparted on this journey,, and i am now thrilled to have a name to research and read more about this on my won...

your story was gripping.. heart wrenching and empowering... bravo jason... bravo!!

Ello said...

This was really excellent. I think you have reached your goal in educating us and bringing this story to life. I know that I had no idea about any of this before reading your series and I do thank you for it. It was not only enlightening but deeply moving.


Anonymous said...

I can't thank you enough for this. There is so much I want to say to you. I'll try not to forget anything - this was incredibly well-written. You painted Julia in such a memorable light. I won't forget her unwavering acceptance of her condition, her concern for others, her acute intelligence. You highlighted her humanity with every word. How fortunate we all are to have met her through you. Thank you.

SzélsőFa said...

Thank you Jason!
As you know my mother is affected, but since she got some medicines, she is alive and can walk and move quite freely, but with age setting on, some of the bones within her legs are out of control now.
She understands English but not enough to get to read this wonderful story, but you made me think of the potential hardships she encountered througout her life.

Aine said...

Jason-- you've outdone yourself with this series. As a therapist, my heart is singing. As a human, my heart is breaking. And as your wife, I am so proud of your accomplishment. This piece does more than entertain.

Thanks for enriching us!

Bev said...

wonderful Jason

I am every day grateful that my husband survived his battle with this awful disease -- he talks (very rarely) about the iron lung that was just outside the door should he need it

I am also grateful for Jonas Salk and because of him my children never had to be afraid of that -- I just wish every parent that has decided they don't need to have their child vacinated would be required to read this story

Anonymous said...

Aggie, thank so much for sharing your own family's experience with polio and its effects. I'm very happy too that your sister was spared these dire consequences.

Ill Man, I very much appreciate everyone who took the time to read along. This was the largest series I've done.

Sarah, thank you. :) The fact that Julia lived and breathed for you is such huge compliment. I'm also grateful that you were touched by the challenges these people faced. Thanks for being there with Julia.

Charles, I very much tried to write each piece to be enjoyable as a stand-alone. I think that the vignette style is very conducive to the blog format and readable.

Vesper, thank you for saying so. :) This series was hard. It took a toll on me too. I was often moved by the milestones Julia experienced. Thanks for being a part of it.

Kaye, I know what you mean about Dianne. My first reaction was outrage. To have suffered so many things only to die because of a power outage.... But then, something struck me. There must be so much more to her life than a headline. So many good, as well as painful, things. That's what I wanted to experience.

Paisley, thank you! Yes, this series was a strong inspiration for me. I hope you find similarly inspiring stories in your research.

Ello, your comment brings a big smile. :) Thank you for expressing that sentiment. Your new appreciation for these experiences and human triumphs makes it all worthwhile.

Selma, I will treasure your comments. All of them. Your enthusiasm for this series was one of my motivators to continue pouring in my best efforts, to really grapple with Julia's experiences under these incredible conditions. Julia taught me things as she grew. I want to thank you for encouraging me to learn them.

Szelsofa, my thoughts are with your mother. I hope that despite the struggles she endures now, her recovery as a child and resulting active life are seen as a great gift by her. Something that might lessen the sting of her suffering now.

Aine, you've been no small part of Julia's creation. :) Thank you for all of your guidance and advice in the creation of this life!!

Bev, what a frightening thought--that iron lung waiting for his condition to decline. I'm so glad it never came to that. And you raise a huge point. Vaccinations are vital. The amount of suffering and death that vaccines have eliminated can scarcely be measured.

Geraldine said...

You have done a brilliant job with this riveting, touching series Jason. And what a wonderful tribute you have paid to all the iron lung survivors. They have lived and endured such a limited existence by some standards and yet extraordinary in so many ways, judging by the true stories I've read.

As a child I remember pictures of wards of the iron lung patients in hospitals, row after row.It seemed so strange and so forbidding. It also made me sad to consider how they were forced to live.

You brought real depth and emotion to Julia's personality.

Your last paragraph says it all.

SzélsőFa said...

This is absolutely the case, Jason. She was a really active woman and is thankful for all those long years. Now she leads a quiet life scattered with pain, but she is thankful for the medicines she was able to be given...

Milly said...

I spoke with a man who had polio a few days before this ending, he struggled to walk but was blessed to be able to.

I knew it was coming but still I hoped for her a different ending.