Iron lungs were part of some childhoods

Dreaded treatment
Dreaded treatment
Firefighters Mel Koehler, left, and William Workman pose in 1951 at Fire Station No. 3 with the nine adult-sized iron lungs and pediatric lung the Fort Wayne department maintained.
By Jennifer L. Boen of The News-Sentinel

Sue Rowe was just a second-grader at Washington Township Elementary School on Wallen Road that fall in 1952 when extreme lethargy and flulike symptoms set in. It wasn't long before her family physician, Dr. Fred Schoen, gave the Fort Wayne family the news every parent at that time dreaded: Rowe had polio.

"I remember just lying there in bed," Rowe said. "My brother and my sister were not allowed to really spend time with me. I remember being carried around by my dad."

The contagious virus mainly affected Rowe's right side, then insidiously spread throughout her body, even affecting internal organs. She was not hospitalized, but the doctor visited her daily, she said.

"My parents told me that my jaws were locked and my organs began to be paralyzed. My teeth were clenched so tight they could barely get a straw between my teeth to give me fluids," Rowe, now 54, recalled.

Memories of the polio epidemic also come easily for 80-year-old Anna Mae Lynn of Huntington. She recalls her son Charlie's battle with the virus, which nationwide caused thousands of deaths or permanent paralysis.

"The doctor came out to the house," Lynn recalled of the summer of 1949. "He tried to sit Charlie up in bed, but his neck and back were stiff."

The Lynns took their only child, who was 6 at the time, to Methodist Hospital -- now Parkview Hospital -- in Fort Wayne. Charlie spent months recuperating there and did not return to school until 1950.

Being told her child had polio "was a very, very dreaded feeling," Lynn said. "Polio was on everyone's mind.

"But we were one of the lucky ones," Lynn added. "Charlie could breathe on his own, though his body was very rigid. He didn't have to go into the iron lung."

Both Charlie Lynn, now a Union Pacific Railroad manager, and Rowe, who is a part-time child-care provider, recovered with few visible effects from the virus.

Not everyone was so lucky.

Janet Hudson of New Haven vividly recalls weeks in an iron lung and then a year in Northern Indiana Children's Hospital in South Bend to undergo intensive rehabilitation. The Crown Point native was 17 when she contracted polio.

"Paralyzed from the neck down, I laid for five weeks in an iron lung. Unknown to me, I had quit breathing and was turning black. A tracheotomy was performed to save my life," Hudson, 65, recalled.

"The pain was unbearable so they put very hot blankets on us and covered us with plastic and left us for 45 minutes at a time," she remembered.

This method of treatment was known as the Sister Kenny method, named after an Australian nurse whose controversial hot pack therapy brought attention to the value of physiotherapy.

Hudson -- then Janet Aiken -- had just started dating Paul Hudson. He went to the hospital to see her as often as he could but wasn't able to even hold her hand those first days, as she was kept in isolation.

"Friends visited me," Hudson said. "They sat on a chair at my door, and I looked at them, flat on my back, through a mirror above my head."

Eventually, she was taken out of isolation. Hudson, who now uses a motorized wheelchair-scooter, credits her then-boyfriend -- now her husband -- with giving her the incentive to get better and eventually walk again with braces and only one crutch.

"Day after day, week after week," Hudson remembers, "I propped my arm up with pillows so I could fix my hair before my fella came to call."

Caring for patients such as Hudson was a difficult job for nurses.

Fort Wayne retired nurse Myra Chandler started her nursing career in 1955 at Parkview's pediatric ward and remembers taking care of children in iron lungs.

"It was hard. You had to put your hands in through the holes. You changed their bed, bathed them, turned them through the holes. It took two nurses to turn them, one on each side," she recalled.

Though it's been more than 40 years, Chandler's voice reflects deep sadness when she remembers the children who died. One little boy, the son of Dr. Richard Johnson Sr. of Fort Wayne, died one morning, just as Chandler was preparing to go off duty.

"Here he was, a doctor's son. He was in an iron lung. There was just nothing anyone could do to save him," she said.

Another local nurse, Florence Schaffer, 77, worked in the early 1950s at Methodist Hospital on Lewis Street in downtown Fort Wayne.

"When we needed an iron lung, we called the fire department," she said. Fire Station No. 3, on the corner of Washington and Webster streets -- now the Firefighters Museum -- volunteered to store, deliver and service the massive breathing machines.

"The firefighters would deliver them to the hospitals or homes," said Fort Wayne Fire Department Assistant Chief Ron Hamm, who volunteers at the museum. "Then they'd go back every three to four hours to see that they were working OK."

For victims such as Sue Rowe, Charlie Lynn and Janet Hudson, the development of the polio vaccine in 1953 by Dr. Jonas Salk came too late.

Recognizing that prevention of the disease held more hope than curing the devastating results, Salk began researching a vaccine and was given $1.7 million dollars by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis -- now the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, which was founded by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also a victim of polio.

Salk's vaccine, approved for worldwide use in 1955, became the first vaccine developed for a disease of epidemic proportions since the smallpox vaccine was developed in 1796.

What is polio?

Polio is a virus that attacks the nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord. Initial symptoms are similar to influenza. Severe polio attacks cause stiffness of the neck and back, with weakening muscles, pain and potential paralysis. There are three types of polio viruses. Though scientists aren't certain exactly how polio is spread, it is believed that the virus spreads from the nose, throat and intestines of infected people. Some people have been known to carry the virus, yet not become ill. The Sabin vaccine, an oral one developed in 1961, is now given worldwide to children to prevent the disease. The World Health Organization has declared the disease nearly wiped out.

unction(w,d,s,l,i){w[l]=w[l]||[];w[l].push({'gtm.start': new Date().getTime(),event:'gtm.js'});var f=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0], j=d.createElement(s),dl=l!='dataLayer'?'&l='+l:'';j.async=true;j.src= 'https://www.googletagmanager.com/gtm.js?id='+i+dl;f.parentNode.insertBefore(j,f); })(window,document,'script','dataLayer','GTM-KVWHXLX'); Contact Us | FortWayne.com