BANGOR, Maine — When Tropical Storm Irene blustered through Bangor last month, many folks took precautions in case they lost electricity. Some stocked up on water for drinking or propane for their outdoor grills. Others made sure they had extra batteries on hand and took a flashlight with them when they retired for the evening.
Dennis Stubbs didn’t go to bed at all that night, because if the power went out he didn’t want to be stuck in his iron lung.
Every night since he was diagnosed with polio at the age of 7, Stubbs, now 64, has slept in an iron lung. And this is the real deal — an airtight, coffin-like, cast-iron cylinder on legs, from which only his head protrudes. An adjustable gasket seals around his neck to complete the vacuum inside. As the air pressure drops inside the tank, Stubbs’ chest and lungs expand to pull in room air through his mouth and nose. When the vacuum is released, the increased pressure pushes the air back out.
The machine cycles at about 18 breaths per minute. It sounds like a noisy dishwasher. It takes up considerably more space than a full-sized sofa in the living room of his small apartment .
“I believe this is one of about 25 iron lungs still in use in the United States, and the only one in Maine,” Stubbs said from within the tank in a recent interview, a touch of pride in his voice. Although he can breathe on his own — and does, during the day — he sleeps in the lung at night and lets it do the hard work for him.
Built in the early 1950s, Stubbs’ iron lung is essentially identical to the one in which he was placed the night of Sept. 2, 1953, after his mother took him to the emergency room at Eastern Maine General Hospital. It was his younger brother Jim’s third birthday, and the family home in Kenduskeag had been busy and festive all day.
A dreaded diagnosis
“I had been feeling pretty sluggish,” Stubbs recalled during a recent morning visit in his Bangor apartment. “I told my mother I had a headache and I didn’t want to stay up any later.” When his mother felt his forehead and realized he was clammy and feverish, she brought him to the hospital. A spinal tap confirmed polio, one of the most dreaded diagnoses of the early 20th century.
The polio virus and the devastating paralysis it can cause has plagued humans since ancient times. Between 1840 and the mid-1950s, an extensive global outbreak affected millions of people, including many infants and young children. The term “infantile paralysis” came into use. At the height of the polio epidemic in 1952, nearly 60,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths were reported in the United States alone.
A vaccine developed by Jonas Salk in 1955 brought a blessed halt to the epidemic. Very few cases have been reported in the Western hemisphere since the 1970s. Polio is now common in only a few countries in Africa and Asia — areas where the vaccine is not routinely administered. Occasional cases occur in the developed world, primarily among unvaccinated travelers who visit countries where the disease still exists, according to the World Health Organization.
In some cases, the virus, spread by oral-fecal contamination, causes only very mild and short-lived symptoms. Other people experience partial or temporary paralysis — Dennis Stubbs’ younger brother Jim was diagnosed shortly after the birthday party. He was unable to walk for several months but then recovered almost completely.
But some victims are severely and permanently affected, losing virtually all muscle function, even the ability to breathe.
In the spring of 1954, after an interminable winter confined 24 hours a day in the iron lung at Eastern Maine General Hospital, Stubbs and his machine were flown to Massachusetts in a military aircraft. He spent two years at a specialized rehabilitation center in Wellesley Hills, where he was taught how to breathe on his own.
Demonstrating the technique outside the tank, Stubbs appears to gulp several mouthfuls of air, then uses the muscles in his neck to force the air into his lungs. This is how he breathes, all day long. It’s as natural to him now as normal breathing is to most people, although he can’t do it when he’s asleep. His neck is big and the muscles there are strong from this work.
The rest of his body, when he is lifted out of the iron lung by a personal aide, is small and fragile-looking from decades of non-use and wasting caused by the polio. The only muscle function he has left, other than in his head and neck, is in his right hand, with which he can clumsily pick up the stick he uses to punch numbers into his telephone.
“It seemed like a normal life”
Stubbs returned from the Wellesley rehab hospital in 1955 and lived at his parents’ home until he was 37 years old. With the help of a home tutor, he kept up with his studies, consistently made the honor roll and graduated from Bangor High School with his peers. Although he was essentially home-bound, a neighbor got him set up with an amateur radio outfit so he could tune in to the whole world. At night, he slept in the iron lung.
“It seemed like a normal life to me,” he said. “But it was a big burden on my mom — there was hardly any help available.”
Eventually, he moved out on his own, relying on the local Alpha One agency to help him hire personal attendants with enough dedication, self-confidence and spunk to cope with his near-total physical disability — and the imposing presence of the iron lung. He earned a degree in business administration from Husson College, now Husson University, and is an active volunteer with the Maine Action Coalition for Persons with Disabilities.
For a number of years, Stubbs was a familiar sight in Bangor, cruising along Union Street in his wheelchair as he headed to a fundraiser or to the racetrack or to meet friends for lunch. Now he stays a little closer to home most days, although he is still a regular at Captain Nick’s restaurant and makes frequent trips around town in the Maine Action Coalition van with others in the disability community.
In addition to his aides, Stubbs is grateful for his family and many friends, including a handy local guy with enough chutzpah to tinker on the iron lung when it gets balky. There also is a certified iron lung mechanic who visits about every four years from Pennsylvania.
And Stubbs is very appreciative of a new smoke alarm that will automatically summon the fire department, provided by the Lifeline service at the Rosscare organization. That was installed after a recent scare involving the iron lung, Stubbs said.
“The oil had dried up and the motor caught fire,” he said. “The power shorted out and the smoke alarm went off.” There wasn’t a thing he could do about it. Fortunately, the electrical fire burned itself out, leaving a thick, acrid smoke hanging in the air. And fortunately, Stubbs was able to keep breathing on his own, although it’s tricky to do it lying flat in the tank, until his aide arrived the next morning.
Stubbs says he’s tried other, more modern types of mechanical ventilators, but hasn’t found anything that works as well for him.
“This is just so comfortable for me,” he said. During a recent illness, he refused to be hospitalized if the iron lung didn’t come with him. Bangor area residents may have seen the strange cargo loaded on a flatbed headed for Eastern Maine Medical Center, decorated with flags for Memorial Day. The nurses there were all too young to remember the days when iron lungs were a familiar sight in most hospitals, Stubbs said, and took turns coming into his room to get a look at the contraption. But a doctor from India, where polio is still a widespread threat and iron lungs are common, was all too familiar with the machine.
Stubbs said his life after polio has been rich and interesting. “It’s a choice you make,” he said. People with disabilities and other challenges can approach their lives with a positive attitude and make the best of things, he said, “or you can sit there and pity yourself. I pretty much chose the other route.”
Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the date the Salk polio vaccine became available; the correct year was 1955. Also, the van used by Dennis Stubbs and others in the disabilities community was purchased by the Maine Action Coalition for Persons with Disabilities.