US Polio Survivor Still in Iron Lung That Was Built in 1940s

December 1, 2013 Updated: July 18, 2015

A US polio survivor who contracted the disease in 1953 is still living in an iron lung that was built in the 1940s.

Martha Ann Lillard, now 65, contracted polio when she was a kindergartner.

She has spent much of the rest of her life inside the iron lung, an 800-pound machine that helps her breathe.

Friends help repair the machine when it breaks.

Lillard has taught herself to walk again and she can leave the respirator, but she doesn’t want to because of the harsh air that comes from portable devices that help polio survivors breathe.

Lillard weighs just over 100 pounds and is 4’9″. She told NBC that she appreciates the iron lung.

“It feels wonderful, actually, if you’re not breathing well,” says Lillard. “When I was first put into it, it was such a relief. It makes all the difference when you’re not breathing.”

Experts said that in 2004 there were 39 U.S. citizens using iron lungs, and that by 2010, that number was down to around a dozen. Approximately one million people survived the polio epidemics in the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s, according to the Polio Survivors Association.

At least 13 children have contracted polio in Syria amid civil war, prompting Lillard to speak up so people will remember how devastating the disease is.

“If my mother would have had the opportunity to give me the vaccine, she would have done that,” said Lillard. “To let somebody go through what I went through and what other children went through. What if people had to do that again? It would be just unbelievable.”

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