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Woman in iron lung celebrates 60th birthday

/ Source: The Associated Press

A Jackson woman who contracted polio 57 years ago and continues to rely on an iron lung to breathe recently celebrated her 60th birthday, defying doctors' expectations that she could live so long and so fully. Dianne Odell, who turned 60 last week, is among only 30 to 40 people in the U.S. who depend on the devices.

Like Odell, most of them were children when they contracted polio, a viral disease that deteriorated muscle function to the point that their bodies lacked the strength to inhale.

No one can say with certainty whether Odell holds the record for longevity in the machine, but she is, without doubt, near the top of the list.

"It's just the way God wanted it," she said.

Odell does not remember being able to walk, but she has been told that once upon a time she did.

On a summer day in 1950, she told her mother she was not feeling well and went to her bedroom.

Geneva Odell suspected the worst about her daughter's condition from the beginning.

Poliomyelitis, a disease that attacks the central nervous system, had risen to epidemic levels in the U.S., 20,000 new cases a year in the late 1940s. There was talk of a cure, but each year thousands more were diagnosed.

"Children were being paralyzed and dying all over. It was a scary time," recalled the mother, now 82 and using a wheelchair because of health issues of her own.

An iron lung, about 7 feet long and weighing several hundred pounds, became as familiar a fixture in the family's home as a coffee table or an upholstered chair.

In the early stages of her paralysis, Odell could breathe without assistance for short periods and did not have to spend all day in the machine. Sometimes friends would stop by and cart her about on trips through the neighborhood.

But in her early 20s, she became tethered to the machine 24 hours a day. It has been that way ever since.

There are other, and more modern, kinds of respirators in use, but because of the severity of her case, Odell is limited to the iron lung.

"You get used to it. What you don't want to do is let it control you. I try to do anything I think I can do," Odell said.

She graduated from high school as a homebound student and attended Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., on a scholarship to study psychology. A cousin went along to record lectures, and classes were sometimes held in her room at a professor's home where she boarded.

However, migraine head aches and other health issues forced her to give up her dream of getting a college degree. Several years later, the college presented her with an honorary doctorate.

She wrote a children's book, the story of Blinky, a dim star in the sky that yearns to be a wishing star. She has also been a doting aunt to four nephews, children of her two younger sisters.

Her parents needed help caring for their daughter, and the community rallied to raise money. About $1,000 a week is required to continue the round-the-clock care she needs to live at home.

"Medicare did not kick in. She just didn't qualify," said Frank McMeen, president of the West Tennessee Healthcare Foundation, which has pledged to provide for Odell's care for the rest of her life.

In 2001 a gala that attracted actors, singers, politicians and philanthropists raised more than $100,000. Last Saturday's birthday party was also an effort to fund her continued care. That event raised about $7,000.

"She's an angel. People want to help her. It's the best of what America is all about," McMeen said.