Martha Mason was an extraordinary human being who spent over 60 years of her life in immobilized in an Iron Lung after becoming paralyzed in her childhood years as a result of polio. Despite her seemingly desperate situation, Martha lived a fulfilling life, graduating from high-school and college with the highest honors, hosting many dinner parties and even writing a book called “Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung”, in which she portrayed the challenges and joys of her life.
Martha was born on May 31, 1937, in Lattimore, a small town about 50 miles from Charlotte. Her story took a tragic urn when she was only 11 years old, after the death of her brother Gaston who had suffered from a terrible condition which left him paralyzed before eventually killing him. After his burial, young Martha realized she had also contracted the dangerous viral illness but kept it to herself as not to distress her parents even more. “I knew that I had polio. I didn’t want anyone else to know,” she wrote in her book. “The day before I had heard Mother talking to a friend about the iron lung Gaston had been in. . . . I knew I wouldn’t have that difficulty because I had excellent lungs.” But soon she too found herself immobilized in the iron lung, dependent on it to do the breathing for her. “Iron lung” is only a colloquial term used to describe a pressure ventilator, a type of medical device which helps paralyzed people breathe by decreasing and increasing air pressure inside of a large iron tank. Ms. Mason has lived almost her entire life in such a tank with the pressure contracting and expanding her lungs when her weak muscles couldn’t. Doctors told Martha’s parents to take her home and make her happy for a year, as that was how long she had left to live. She outlived them both thanks to an avid curiosity and a desire to learn about the world.