Dianne Odell’s life ended today, a casualty of the storms that ripped through Tennesee last night. Many will mourn her death. She was loved by many: her beloved family, her wide circle of friends, and the children who read her book about Blinky, the small star whose only wish was to become a wishing star.

But her death made headlines for another reason, because Miss Odell was one of the longest survivers of the long forgotten polio epidemics of the 1940’s and 1950’s, and she spent her entire life in an iron lung.

The LATIMES has photos of an iron lung ward at this link.

Although I knew five people who had various levels of limb weakness due to having polio, (including two doctors who contracted it from caring for their patients), by the time I went through medical school, the miracle of vaccines had ended the epidemic.

Few people nowadays remember those days when moms would refuse to let their children swim in public swimming pools because there were cases of polio in the area, and every high fever was met with panic.

The most dreaded complication of polio was paralysis of the muscles that let you breathe. In those days, people were placed in iron lungs, whose negative pressure allowed the lungs to fill in order to breathe. Many people recovered enough after the acute episode to be weaned out of the iron lung, but others did not.

The iron lung saved their lives, and had holes in the side for caretakers to do basic cleaning, and patients often could breath enough on their own to be removed for short periods of time (the problem was that prolonged time outside would result in muscle fatigue and being too weak to continue to breathe). The lungs also had manual pumps in case of power outage. Nowadays, most of the few surviving patients have been weaned off onto ordinary respirators–indeed, by the 1960’s when I was in medical school, the iron lungs were still around, but we didn’t see any, since positive pressure respirators had replaced most of the units, and most of the patients were in specialized homes.

But in Dianne’s case physical problems made changing from the iron lung inadvisable, so she remained in the iron lung 58 years.

But in recent years, several small strokes caused her health to deteriorate.

Alas, for Dianne, the storm caused a prolonged power outage, and the back up generator would not start, so despite the family doing the manual pumping, she was too weak to survive.

Blessings on her and her family.

But her death, with the rememberance of days past, is not the real story. The real story is that Dianne was able to be cared for at home by a loving family, with help from friends and their church. She was included in family celebrations, and had many friends. She got a high school diploma, and studied psychology in college. And among her visitors and correspondents was Christopher Reeve, who himself later suffered paralysis for a fall.

Using an ancient voice activated word processor, she wrote a children’s book about Blinky, a tiny star that wanted to be the wishing star, and with the help of loving parents and trying hard, gets his wish, and helps a small child.

And perhaps it is Blinky who summarizes best the happy circle of friends who helped her, but were themselves inspired by her faith and patience and high spirits.

Odell had said she usually told people that they needed the three F’s to make it in life: faith, family and friends.

“You can’t have one without the other,” she said. “I would also tell others who are facing situations (like mine) to never give up because there’s always something over the horizon. God knows what that is, and you can’t give up.”


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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