COVID IS NOTHING WHEN COMPARED TO POLIO...AND TOTAL PARALYSIS.
MARTHA MASON, 61 years in an iron lung, died at 71 years of age.
Ever since the 1940s, when she was a girl in a small Southern town, Martha Mason dreamed of being a writer. But it was not till nearly half a century later, with the aid of a voice-activated computer, that she could begin setting a memoir down on paper.
Published in 2003, Ms. Mason’s memoir, “Breath,” is not well known outside the Southeast, or perhaps even outside North Carolina, where she was born, grew up and died. It was published by a small regional house, Down Home Press, and was not widely reviewed. But the truly significant thing is that the book was written at all.
Ms. Mason died on Monday at her home in Lattimore, N.C. She was 71 and had lived for more than 60 years in an iron lung.
Her death was confirmed by a friend, Mary Dalton, who said Ms. Mason died in her sleep.
Paralyzed from the neck down as a result of childhood polio, Ms. Mason was one of the last Americans-- perhaps 30 people-- who lived full-time in iron lungs. There is no documented case of any American having done so for quite as long as Martha Mason-- said David W. Rose-- the archivist of the March of Dimes Foundation.
Ms. Mason is the subject of a documentary film, “Martha in Lattimore,” released in 2005 and directed by Ms. Dalton. She also appeared in “The Final Inch,” a documentary about polio that was nominated for an Academy Award this year. From her horizontal world — a 7-foot-long, 800-pound iron cylinder that encased all but her head — Ms. Mason lived a life that was by her own account fine and full, reading voraciously, graduating with highest honors from high school and college, entertaining and eventually writing.
Martha chose to remain in an iron lung for the freedom it gave her. It let her breathe without tubes in her throat, incisions or hospital stays--- as newer, smaller ventilators might require. It took no professional training to operate, letting her remain mistress of her own house, with just two aides assisting her. “I’m happy with who I am, where I am,” Ms. Mason told The Charlotte Observer in 2003. “I wouldn’t have chosen this life, certainly. But given this life, I’ve probably had the best situation anyone could ask for.” Ms. Mason’s only immediate survivors are her aides, Ginger Justice and Melissa Boheler, whom she considered family.
Martha Ann Mason was born on May 31, 1937, and reared in Lattimore, a small town about 50 miles west of Charlotte. In September 1948, when she was 11, Martha went to bed one night feeling achy. She did not tell her parents because she did not want to compound their sorrow: that day, they had buried her 13-year-old brother, Gaston, who had died of polio a few days before. Martha spent the next year in hospitals before being sent home in an iron lung. Doctors told her parents she would live another year at most. She survived, she later said, because she was endlessly curious and there was so much to learn.
With daily visits from her teachers, Martha resumed her studies, graduating first in her high school class. She entered Gardner-Webb College in Boiling Springs, N.C., receiving an associate’s degree in 1958. Afterward, Ms. Mason and her iron lung were transported by bakery truck to Winston-Salem, where she enrolled in Wake Forest College. There, she joined a student group seeking to integrate the campus. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Wake Forest in 1960. At both colleges — they are now universities — Ms. Mason lived with her parents in a campus apartment and attended lectures by intercom. At both colleges, she graduated first in her class.
Returning to Lattimore, Ms. Mason began writing for the local newspaper, dictating her articles to her mother, Euphra. Not long afterward, Ms. Mason’s father, Willard, suffered a major heart attack and became an invalid, requiring Euphra to care for him, too. There was no more time for taking dictation. For decades afterward, Ms. Mason wrote only in her head, publishing nothing. Her father died in 1977. Perhaps only in a place like Lattimore, whose current population is not much more than 400, could Ms. Mason have thrived as well as she did. For if Ms. Mason could not go to the town-- then the town was quite prepared to come to her. The doctor visited regularly, of course, but so did all the neighbors and the neighbors’ neighbors. So did members of the local fire department, who came by during power failures to make sure her backup generator was working.
Ms. Mason often gave dinner parties — she ate lying down, with her guests around the table and the iron lung pushed up beside it — and savored lively conversation, good gossip and the occasional bawdy story. Amid the rhythmic whoosh ... whoosh of the iron lung, the local book club met in her home. High school graduates stopped by so she could admire them in their caps and gowns, as did just-married couples in their wedding finery. Souvenir magnets from faraway places, gifts from traveling friends, adorned the yellow exterior of Ms. Mason’s iron lung like labels on a steamer trunk.
But small-town life could have its drawbacks. “She’s an intellectual, yet the local video store was not going to have ‘Wild Strawberries’ for her to rent,” said Ms. Dalton, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest. “She could talk to anybody, but she needed that kind of intellectual stimulation, too. And there were years when I imagine that was a little hard to come by.”
That changed in the mid-1990s, when Ms. Mason acquired a voice-activated computer with e-mail capability and Internet access. The computer brought her the world. It also let her contemplate writing her memoir, which is subtitled “Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung.”
She began the book in tribute to her mother. In the late 1980s, after a series of strokes, Euphra Mason descended into dementia and abusiveness, occasionally slapping and cursing her daughter. Ms. Mason insisted that her mother remain at home. From her iron lung, she took over the running of the household, planning meals, paying bills and arranging for her mother’s care. After her mother’s death in 1998, Ms. Mason began work on her book in earnest. There, in her childhood home, with a microphone at her mouth and the music of the iron lung for company, she wrote her life story sentence by sentence in her soft Southern voice, with her own breath.