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Observations placeholder

Martha Ann Lillard inside the iron lung



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

It feels wonderful, actually': The polio survivor who has lived inside an iron lung for 60 YEARS

  • Martha Ann Lillard, 65, was paralyzed by polio at age five
  • The Oklahoma resident has spent most of her life inside an 800-pound iron lung that helps her breathe
  • The respirator, built in the 1940s, increases and decreases the air pressure to expand and contract Lillard's lungs

By Daily Mail Reporter

Published: 23:28, 30 November 2013 | Updated: 17:24, 1 December 2013

Martha Ann Lillard's crippling illness has made her a prisoner in her own home for the last 60 years.

Paralyzed by polio at age five, the Oklahoma woman has spent most of her life encased in a 1940s respirator which breathes for her.

But the 65-year-old couldn't imagine life any other way.

Martha Ann Lillard, 65, has lived inside an iron lung like this one since she was five-years-old

Martha Ann Lillard, 65, has lived inside an iron lung like this one since she was five-years-old

'Some people have said I’d rather die than leave my iron lung, and it makes it sound like I’m not trying to be modern, and it’s not like that at all,' she told NBC News.

'It feels wonderful, actually, if you’re not breathing well. When I was first put into it, it was such a relief. It makes all the difference when you’re not breathing.'

Lillard has learned to live with her disease.

She taught herself to walk again. While she can leave the 800-pound respirator, she prefers not to.

Lillard lies on a goose down comforter inside a long metal cylinder in which she’s enclosed with an airtight seal. Her neck and head sticks out of a foam collar.

There are switches inside to allow her to roll a tray-like cot in and out.

She lives with her three beagles, and a housemate who helps care for her. She stays in touch with friends by phone and internet.

Lillard owns her iron lung, which runs on a fan belt motor that friends help patch together with car parts when it breaks.

She said it's a better option than portable positive pressure ventilators which most polio survivors use. They force air into the lungs, often through a tube in the throat.

'If I use the positive pressure vent, I’m not as well rested,' she said.

Martha told MailOnline about her experience. 'I was paralyzed all over except my face.I was unconscious & turning blue when they put me in the lung. I was in it for six month in hospital, during which time I learned to breathe for 30 seconds and longer on my own. It was terrifying.  When you can't breathe much, you can't talk, cry or make a sound. Doctors said I wouldn't ever be out of the lung or walk. I was determined to do both!'

She says that after the time she spent in hospital she regained 25% of her breathing and after a year of work she learned to walk.

'I would love to not need any vent & would like not to have the weakening that comes with Post-Poilo Syndrome. I can't use other types of ventilators because of inflammation that comes with Polio. I could be more rested if I stayed in the lung full time. But I choose to be up as much as possible.'

This undated photo shows a woman lying inside an iron lung

This undated photo shows a woman lying inside an iron lung

Lillard considers herself an anomaly in a U.S. society that barely remembers the scourge of polio - a viral infection of the spinal cord that mainly affected young children.

......Lillard was a kindergartner in 1953 when she woke up with a sore throat that quickly progressed to poliovirus. The virus is transmitted through contaminated food and water.

'The night before I was paralyzed, the neighbor children ate out of the same bowl of pancake batter that I did,' Lillard said. 'They just had to pray that nobody got it.'

The first known outbreak of polio in the U.S. was in 1894 in Vermont. In 1952, a record 57,628 cases of polio were reported in the U.S.


The source of the experience

Ordinary person

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps





Controlled breathing