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.