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Woman in iron lung turns 60

Dianne Odell contracted polio when she was a child, taking away her ability to breathe on her own. Today, she has beaten the odds.

Published February 22, 2007


JACKSON, Tenn. - A woman who contracted polio 57 years ago and continues to rely on an iron lung to breathe celebrated her 60th birthday recently, defying doctors' expectations that she could live so long and so fully.

Dianne Odell, who turned 60 last week, is among only 30 to 40 people in the United States who depend on the devices.

Like Odell, most of them were children when they contracted polio, a viral disease that deteriorated muscle function to the point that their bodies lacked the strength to inhale.

No one can say with certainty whether Odell holds the record for longevity in the machine, but she is, without doubt, near the top of the list.

"It's just the way God wanted it," she said.

On a summer day in 1950, she told her mother she was not feeling well and went to her bedroom.

Geneva Odell suspected the worst about her daughter's condition from the beginning.

Poliomyelitis, a disease that attacks the central nervous system, had risen to epidemic levels in the United States, 20,000 new cases a year in the late 1940s. There was talk of a cure, but each year thousands more were diagnosed.

"Children were being paralyzed and dying all over. It was a scary time," recalled Geneva, now 82 and using a wheelchair.

An iron lung, about 7 feet long and weighing several hundred pounds, became as familiar a fixture in the family's home as a coffee table or an upholstered chair.

In the early stages of her paralysis, Odell could breathe without assistance for short periods and did not have to spend all day in the machine. Sometimes friends would stop by and cart her about on trips through the neighborhood.

But in her early 20s, she became tethered to the machine 24 hours a day. It has been that way ever since.

There are other, and more modern, kinds of respirators in use, but because of the severity of her case, Odell is limited to the iron lung.

"You get used to it. What you don't want to do is let it control you. I try to do anything I think I can do," Odell said.

She graduated from high school as a homebound student and attended college and wrote a children's book, the story of Blinky, a dim star in the sky that yearns to be a wishing star. She has also been a doting aunt to four nephews, children of her two younger sisters.

"She's an angel. People want to help her. It's the best of what America is all about," said Frank McMeen, president of a health care foundation that has pledged to provide for Odell's care for the rest of her life.

[Last modified February 22, 2007, 01:00:33]

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