Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Iron Lung, Martha Mason, and Me


I once spent about three months in an iron lung, that fearsome device that saved so many lives. I take a perverse pride in that feat, although it really required no effort on my part. No one bolted down the hatch on a Mercury space capsule and launched me into orbit. No one captured me and starved me behind barbed wire because I was a prisoner of war. I simply ... resided in an iron lung until others said "Enough!" and acted to get me out of it.

All this comes to mind because of a woman named Martha Mason. She died a few days ago, after spending sixty years in an iron lung.
LATTIMORE - Cleveland County lost a most unusual world record setter Monday. Martha Mason had bested polio, a once-pandemic disease, over 85 percent of her lifetime after being told she wouldn't live to her teen years. One month shy of 72, Mason died early Monday at home in tiny Lattimore, where she had "lived above" her disease flat on her back for more than 61 years.

Two things interest me about this story, the first probably relates to the second. The first is that she tried other methods of ventilation, but she preferred the iron lung. The second is that Mason flourished because she was part of a community.
Mason lives on a quiet side street in Lattimore. She can't go to town so town comes to her.

Friends stop by for gossip or advice. Book clubs meet there to discuss everything from "Moby Dick" to mysteries by Patricia Cornwell, whom Mason has known since Cornwell reported for The Observer.

In a large room dominated by the iron lung, friends gather at dinner parties by candlelight and consume bottles of wine. Mason eats lying down.

Friends bring baskets of wildflowers and videos of weddings, birthday parties, funerals, outings at the mall and vacations. A visitor once brought a bottle of ants to help Mason feel close to nature.

The visitor flow is steady. Mason is an engaging conversationalist. People come, drawn not by pity but by the joy of the visit.

I too am have ridden through life on that same lucky horse. I have lived outside of an institution (euphemistically called a "long-term care facility") all my life. And that's why I understand the bitterness boiling up from the recent demonstration by ADAPT at the White House and the Capitol to move the Obama Administration and Congress toward passage of the Community Choice Act.
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