Bangor man who used iron lung to cope with effects of polio dies

Dennis Stubbs, of Bangor contracted polio at the age of seven. Stubbs was quadraplegic spent every night in an &quotiron lung" to help him breathe while he slept. Stubbs died Tuesday at his home. He was 66 years old.
Gabor Degre | Gabor Degre
Dennis Stubbs, of Bangor contracted polio at the age of seven. Stubbs was quadraplegic spent every night in an "iron lung" to help him breathe while he slept. Stubbs died Tuesday at his home. He was 66 years old. Buy Photo
Posted Dec. 12, 2012, at 10:58 p.m.

A Bangor man who had lived with the effects of polio and was still breathing with the help of an iron lung died Tuesday at his home.

BDN readers may remember a 2011 story that featured Dennis Stubbs who, every night since the age of 7, had slept in an iron lung — an airtight, cast-iron cylinder on legs, from which only his head protruded.

Stubbs, 66, also suffered from melanoma and kept the seriousness of his cancer to himself, according to cousin Dierdre Monson of Florida.

Doctors operated on the cancer once, but it later returned, according to his younger brother Jim Stubbs of Brewer. Stubbs’ breathing difficulties made it risky for him to be put under anesthesia for further procedures, his brother said.

In the September 2011 article, Stubbs described his life after polio as rich and interesting. People with disabilities and other challenges can approach their lives with a positive attitude, “or you can sit there and pity yourself,” Stubbs said at the time. “I pretty much chose the other route.”

Reminded of those words Wednesday, Jim Stubbs said, “That’s my brother … the best big brother.”

For a number of years, Stubbs was a familiar sight in Bangor, cruising along Union Street in his wheelchair. He often traveled from Griffin Road to Bass Park to watch the horse races, said his nephew Ryan Stubbs.

“He was an extremely nice guy,” Ryan Stubbs said. “Almost everyone in Bangor knew who he was.”

Ryan Stubbs identified with his uncle’s lack of mobility because he once temporarily lost the ability to walk due to a chronic disease, he said.

Dennis Stubbs’ iron lung, built in the early 1950s, was nearly 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, according to the September 2011 article. It was his brother Jim’s 3rd birthday.

A spinal tap confirmed polio, a virus that can cause devastating paralysis and reached epidemic levels before a vaccine was developed in 1955 by Jonas Salk.

In some cases, the virus causes only mild and short-lived symptoms. Other people experience partial or temporary paralysis. Some are severely and permanently affected, losing virtually all muscle function, even the ability to breathe.

Stubbs later spent two years at a specialized rehabilitation center in Massachusetts, where he was taught how to breathe on his own, according to the September 2011 article.

He used the iron lung at night. As the air pressure dropped inside the tank, Stubbs’ chest and lungs would expand to pull in air through his mouth and nose. When the vacuum was released, the increased pressure pushed the air back out, the article stated.

Stubbs returned from the 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, the article stated.

He later moved out, relying on personal attendants. He earned a degree in business administration from Husson College, now Husson University, and was an active volunteer with the Maine Action Coalition for Persons with Disabilities.

The family is planning a small, private funeral service, Jim Stubbs said.

“He knew so many people,” Jim Stubbs said of his brother. “You would need an auditorium to put them all in.”

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