28 Years in an Iron Lung

A little over a year ago, after the interview took place, Joan Herman developed a malignancy that took her life. Courageous to the end, and trusting fully in God, her last days were spent in continued ministry to those about her.

Mark Finley is associate pastor of the Sterling, Massachusetts, church.

TWENTY-EIGHT  YEARS  in  an iron lung!  That  was  just  about  the  world's record.  Not  exactly  a  championship  to volunteer for, but one that Joan Herman turned into  an  achievement  and  a  distinctive honor. A  little while  before  her recent  death,  Mark  Finley,  one  of  her pastors,  interviewed  Joannie,  as  she was  affectionately  called  by  her  many friends.

You  just  couldn't  talk  to  Joannie without  talking  about—or  at least  listening  to—her  faith  in  God  and  appreciation  for  His  blessings.  Because that's  what  Joannie  thought  about,  it bubbled  out  continually,  like  a clear spring.  So, if you're allergic to beautiful things,  like  clear,  pure  spring  water, faith,  trust,  and  love—better  not  read this article.

Twenty-eight  years!  What  a  long time to live in an iron lung! How did you get polio, Joannie?

Well, the summer I turned 18  I spent at  a  Quaker  camp  in  East  Millsboro, Pennsylvania,  where  college-age  students  worked  with  miners  and  their families.  It  was  a  cooperative  community; the miners were to have their own factory, their own homes and gardens—this  way  they  would  not  be  dependent on  unscrupulous  mine  owners  for their living  and  for  purchasing  food  and clothing.  For  almost  two  months  I dug ditches,  cut  down trees, and laid cinder block.  Although  I  enjoyed  it, it seemed as  if  we  were  just  going  through  motions.  We  weren't  getting  close  to  the people  we  were  trying  to  help;  we weren't  relating to them in a meaningful way.  I  remember praying that summer  that  the  Lord  would  give  me  an understanding  of  people  who  were really suffering.

My  prayer  was  answered,  but  in  a way  that  I  never  dreamed  of—my  experience with polio has been the answer to  that  prayer.  Suffering  and  learning to live with handicaps has helped me to understand  people  in many  situations where  I just never would have before.

I  didn't  understand  much  about healthful  living  back  in  1946.  During that  summer  of  hard  work  we  all  got up  at  six  o'clock,  to  be  ready  to  go  to work  after  breakfast.  I  had  a  cold  all summer and didn't take care of myself—I  habitually  went  to  bed  late.  I  weakened my  health, and this made me  susceptible  to  the  virus,  I'm  sure.  I  found myself  so  tired that it was a real effort to go to work. Then I got a backache but kept on  at the  job  until  I  couldn't take it  any  longer.  Finally  the  backache,  a headache, and aching all over indicated that  I  was  really  sick,  so  someone called a doctor. I remember their taking the  door  off  its hinges and stretching it over  two  chairs  for  me  to  lie  on  while they  gave  me  a  spinal  tap.  Then they took  me  to  the  hospital.  There  they found  that  I  not  only  had  polio  but "walking" pneumonia and anemia too.

You must have been pretty sick!

For the first three weeks they weren't sure  I  would  live,  but the Lord brought me through this critical period.

How  about  the  iron  lung? Was  it hard to  adjust to it?

Before  they  put  me  in  the  lung,  I said, "Oh, what a wonderful invention." And  I  am  even  yet more  and more  impressed all the time that it is a wonderful  invention.  When  I  became  well enough  to  be  taken  out  of  the  lung  it was  a  very  difficult  experience.  I  was totally  paralyzed  from  the  neck  down, and this included my breathing muscles. I couldn't breathe at all.  I couldn't even move  an  accessory  muscle.  So,  when  I was pulled  out  of  the  lung,  it  was  as though  I  was  under  water.  If  you've ever  been  hurt  under  water,  you  can get some idea what it was like. It seemed that panic and terror took over.

The  doctor  explained  to  me  that  everybody can hold  his breath for just one minute.  So  they  asked  me  to  come  out of  the lung  for  only that long.  I  had to be  reasonable  and  remind  myself  that in  spite  of  the panic  and  terror  I  was feeling it wouldn't  really hurt me to be out one minute. So, they would take me out  several times a  day for  one minute. I  began  to  realize  that in order to  survive  I  would  have to  build  up that one minute  to  two,  and  three,  and  five minutes.

Why  did  they want you out of the lung?

They  were  thinking  of  weaning  me away  from  it to a  rocking bed,  one that rocks  up  and  down  like  a  seesaw  at breathing  rate,  and  thus  allows  the force  of  gravity  to  assist  breathing. Since  I would be the  first person ever to do  this,  they  asked  for  my  permission. I  agreed.  The  transfer from the lung to the bed would take more than a minute, so  I  really  needed to learn to  be  out  of the lung longer.  It would  also  be  safer. I had a  very wise  doctor,  and she left it to  me  to  build  up my  own  free-breathing time.  I did, with the help of  God.

Was  there  anything  you  could  do to keep your mind off your illness?

I learned how to turn pages so I could read  my  Bible  again  every  day.  I couldn't  even  wiggle  my  big  toe,  but  I had learned to turn my head a little bit from  side  to  side.  I  was  getting  exercises  and good  care and hot packs. Then I  came  across  an  old  saying,  "Go  for ward,  however  small  the  opportunity." So  I  began  to  wiggle  my  little  toe.  I really  capitalized  on  that.  I  was  encouraged.

The Lord gave me hope, and the Bible promise  struck  me  as  truth,  "Seek  ye first the kingdom of  God,  and his righteousness;  and  all  these  things shall be added  unto  you."  "All  these  things" was really quite a few things—strength, courage,  the  ability  to  breathe  comfortably,  to  talk  while  out  of the lung, even  to  sneeze  and  yawn,  which  I hadn't been  able to  do.  It was  also  get ting  along  better  with  my  nurses.  It's quite  an adjustment—from  being  an independent,  vigorous  person,  with  a longing  to  serve  others,  to  becoming someone totally dependent on others.

Joannie,  weren't  you  tempted  to be  overwhelmed  with  despair  and discouragement?

I  surely  was.  But  not  at  first.  The first  thirteen  months  I  was  learning how  to  get  over the  acute  phase  of  the polio,  how  to  breathe  a  little  bit  and even  breathe  some  alone, and I was be coming adjusted.  I was  confident that I could  get  well  and  overcome  this challenge  like  any  other,  if  I  just  did  my very  utmost  and  cooperated  with  all  I was told to do.

Then  I  got  pneumonia  and  had to  go back  into  the  lung  and  start  all  over again. It was at this point I realized that I couldn't do  it alone.  I needed the Lord.

God's Holy Spirit taught me the need for  self-discipline.  I  found  that  my words  and thoughts had a very definite effect  on my  physical  strength and my will to  go  forward, to live,  and to  over come.

Any  other  despondency-dodgers?

I  discovered  how  important it was  to have  regularity in my life; to get up on time; to eat on time; to eat well, even if I  didn't  feel like  eating; to  do  my exercises  as  I was supposed to; to get in and out  of  the  lung;  to  read at  a  regular time;  to  get  outdoors  as  much  as  I could;  and  to  have  recreation  as  I  was able to  find it.

Not  too  long  after  I  had  passed  the critical  stage  in my illness,  I wanted to get  dressed  in  clothes,  as  everyone else was  doing.  That made  me  feel  so much better.

If  you  are  going  through  a  period  of depression or despondency you must dis regard  your  feelings,  and  go  about your  daily  duties.  You  have  to  push yourself—I had to push myself. It took a tremendous  amount  of will,  and  the Lord gave me that will and courage.

What kind of books did you read?

I  read  the  Bible  or  books  that would shed light on it, and books on nature, or autobiographies—Booker T.  Washing ton,  George  Washington  Carver,  and Oliver  Wendell  Holmes—people  whose lives had counted for much in service to mankind.  The  books  I  read  and  the thoughts  I  cherished tended to be what was  constructive  and  beautiful.  They just had to. I couldn't afford to do other wise,  or  I  could  have  perished  in the darkness that crowded  around me.

How did you manage to read?

The  Lord  gave  me  strength  first  to hold  letters  in my left hand, then little pamphlets,  and  finally  my  New  Testament,  so  I  didn't  have  to  depend  on others  to  turn the  pages.  I  learned  to turn the pages with my tongue.

Were  you  able  to  get  out  of  your hospital room at all?

Dr.  Jonas  Salk  had  his  laboratories downstairs  in  the  same  hospital  I  was in,  and I  used to go down and visit with him  and  watch  him  discovering  the polio  virus and then a vaccine for it. He later became  one  of my supporters.

Then, after 2-1/2 years in Pittsburgh, I  was  fortunate  to  move  out  into  the country.  I  was  first  at  a  rehabilitation home  for  children  out  from  Leesdale, Pennsylvania.  It  was  on  a  large  farm estate, and I enjoyed the flowering trees and  gardens  and  cows  so  much.  Since  I was  not  completely  confined to the iron lung,  a  friend  would  push  me  through the  grounds  and this  had  a  healing effect on me.

Then,  although  I was about 20,1 had one wonderful year at the D. T. Watson home  for  crippled  children.  There  I learned  to  stand  up,  to  walk  with  a walker,  and to  feed myself.  I was  given more breathing equipment because they began to  realize it was  too  much  effort for  me  to  breathe  just  with  a  rocking bed.  I was  also  given a  chest respirator part of  the time.  And, best of  all, I had opportunity  to  teach  history  to  one  of the high school  students there.

What  was  it  about  having  polio that bothered you most?

I  had  always  felt,  especially  when  I was  sick, that it  was  essential to try to help  others.  Before  I  learned how to do this  with  my  limitations  it  positively made me  sick not to be  able to.

So  you  had  to  devise  ways  to  do this.

I believed that I had a contribution to make as well as anyone else; it was just a matter of learning how. The first thing was  to  learn to  write well:  writing letters  and  composing  poetry  became  one outlet.  Another  was teaching  the  students  at  the  Watson  home—Sunnyhill it  was  called.  And  it was  a  sunny hill. Then, there is New Horizons.

What is New Horizons?

The vision of New Horizons gradually grew  in  my  mind  and  heart.  It  would be  a  family  home  and  community  for physically  handicapped  adults  and their friends.

With  the  help  of  God,  we've  gotten 24 acres, a picnic pavilion, and a recreation  area—all through  the  efforts  of  a group  of  physically handicapped  adults and  their  friends.  This  recreation  area is  shared  with  many other  organizations,  such  as  Alcoholics  Anonymous. There are more than 500 members, and a  newspaper,  New  Horizons,  that  goes all over the world. That involves a lot of work.  I was editor of the newspaper and wrote for it, edited, and published it.

Seven  years  ago  when  I  met  you your  health  wasn't  as  good  as  it  is today. I am amazed at your improvement.  Your  general  health,  even your  complexion, is  so much better. What  has  happened  these  seven years?

It was  a great wrench at my heart to have to leave  my many  friends in New Britain  and  my  work  with  New  Horizons.  But  since  the  Lord  taught  me principles  of  health  and  Bible  principles  of living, I really believed  I needed to  be  in  a  hospital  where  these  principles  were  cherished  and  practiced.  The Lord  opened the  way  for me to come to Wildwood  Sanitarium  and  Hospital,  in Georgia.  Since  I  have  been  here  my health has  improved  by  leaps  and bounds.  I  was  in  the  lung  almost  full time when I left Memorial Hospital, and I'm  out  of  the  lung just  about  all  day every day now. I rest in it one day a week simply  to  recharge  my battery,  so  to speak,  so  that  I  will  be  strong  enough to  enjoy the  full life  I have here.

On  my  vegetarian  diet  I  have  more stamina  and  strength.  I  used  to  get five  and  six colds  a year and suffer very much from them. But since I've learned the value of eating only a very moderate amount  of  sugar, drinking  lots  of  water,  and  getting  regular  rest  and  exercise,  it's  very  seldom  I  get  a  cold.  I  get exercise with my motorized chair that I drive around myself.

I  visit  my  friends,  and  I  type  regularly in the mornings. I give Bible studies,  and  am  part  of  the  teaching  staff here  as  an  assistant  clinical  instructor of  nursing, a very rewarding and meaningful  experience.  As  a long-term  patient,  I've  learned  a  lot  about  good nursing  and  I  can  share  this  with  the students  as  they  learn  my  care.  Not only  that,  but  I  can  share  insights the Lord  has  given me  through my experience  these years.  My  life  has  opened up.  It is  much more  abundant,  and  my appreciation of my heavenly Father and His love  for us grows  and grows.


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Mark Finley is associate pastor of the Sterling, Massachusetts, church.

April 1976

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