This woman has been locked inside this machine for 56 years

This woman has been locked inside this machine for 56 years

Medical science has changed the world as we know it irrevocably. People with ailments and disabilities which would have once been fatal can now live relatively normal lives, and diseases which plagued nations have been consigned to the history books. Case in point, polio - a once common infectious disease that had the capacity to cause permanent or temporary paralysis, is now an incredibly rare anomaly.

In the mid-1950s, the number of people whose lives were blighted by the illness dramatically fell after a vaccine was introduced. In fact, the disease is now so rare that there hasn't been a single case of polio in the UK since the mid-80s. Children were particularly susceptible to polio, and as a result, when the vaccine was first introduced, they were the priority.

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Because of this, there were a number of adults who still contracted the disease after the vaccine was developed. One of them was 20-year-old Mona Randolph of Kansas City, Missouri, who was diagnosed with polio way back in 1956. She first realized that something was wrong when she began to suffer from a bad headache, fever, and a sensitivity to sound and light.

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"I couldn't stand to hear people talking in the kitchen. They'd whisper and it would hurt my ears. I couldn't stand any light," a now 82-year-old Randolph told the Kansas City Star, which first reported her extraordinary story.

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Seven days after she first began to feel unwell, Randolph sought medical attention when she had trouble breathing. She was subsequently put into an iron lung. This is a mechanical device which was used by polio victims when they struggled to breathe as the disease paralyzed the muscles in their chest. It uses negative air pressure to push air in and out of the lungs.

Needless to say, iron lungs were a necessity during some of the worst polio outbreaks of the 40s and 50s. However, because the disease has been all but eradicated, they are virtually obsolete, and last year it was reported that only 10 people in the world still rely on them - one of whom is Randolph, who, with the help of her iron lung, has survived into her 80s.

When asked how many of the machines are still being used in the US, Brian Tiburzi, executive director of Post-Polio Health International, told BuzzFeed News, "No one knows for sure, but I would guess somewhere between three and five."

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While Randolph's life was not claimed by polio, she was left with permanent paralysis in her left arm and relied on her family and friends in order to go about her day to day life. According to The Star, she was subsequently rehabilitated at a clinic in Warm Springs, Georgia - the same clinic where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who also had polio, was treated.

To hear Randolph explain how she was misdiagnosed when she first fell ill, check out the video below: 

After this, Randolph was able to live without the aid of an iron lung, but her life took a dramatic turn for the worse in the 80s when she developed post-polio syndrome. This is a weakening of the muscles which can happen years after a person has recovered from the disease. Sadly, Randolph once again struggled to breathe and turned to an iron lung for help.

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Since then, she has spent almost every night inside the six-foot-long tank. However, in order for her to live as normal a life as possible, she relies on a simpler machine to help her breathe during the day. Today, she spends six nights a week in her iron lung - which she has dubbed her "yellow submarine" - as it's the only way she is able to breathe normally while she sleeps.

Getting into the machine is no mean feat for the 82-year-old, and it takes an hour for her to get inside. She is usually helped by her husband Mark or a caretaker, and thankfully, despite it being such an old device, the iron lung is relatively quiet.

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While there are modern alternatives to the iron lung available, Randolph said that the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine she uses during the day uncomfortable to wear and frequently breaks. This more modern device works by being placed over an individual's face and pumping a continuous stream of air into their nose.

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The success of polio vaccines in the US has been even greater than in the UK and there hasn't been a single case of the disease since 1979. While it does still exist in other parts of the world, it is very rare still, and there were only 22 cases in 2017.

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It is hoped that polio will be entirely consigned to the history books in the not so distant future and the best way of doing that is through vaccination. This also protects the small number of people who can't have the vaccine by creating herd immunity.

In her interview with The Star, Randolph said that "getting vaccinated is the thing to do". She then added, "It's a personal decision. But something like vaccinations that you can see the proof of with epidemics just seems more logical."

Another one of the handful of people who still use an iron lung is 70-year-old Paul Alexander from Dallas, Texas, who has been relying on the machine since 1952. Unlike Randolph, he contracted polio when he was just a child at five years old.

Paul was left paralyzed from the neck downwards and with permanent respiratory damage, and because he first used an iron lung at such a young age, he has refused to use a more modern alternative, however, this has not been without its problems.

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Because polio was virtually eradicated in the middle of the last century, iron lungs haven't been produced since the 60s, and when the lung that Paul spent the majority of his time in began to malfunction in 2015, he feared for his life.

Martha Ann Lillard, who has spent over 60 years using an iron lung, also said that modern machines are not as helpful to polio victims. "I can't use other types of ventilators because of inflammation that comes with Polio," she revealed.

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Thankfully, Paul's plight eventually caught the attention of mechanic Brady Richards who offered to fix his lung. "I looked for years to find someone who knew how to work on iron lungs," Paul revealed. "It's a miracle that I found him."

Recalling what it was like to repair the near-obsolete device, Richards said, "When we first brought the tube into the shop, one of my younger employees asked me what I was doing with these smoker grills."

Even though Paul's life was ravaged by polio in a way that Randolph's was not, he has still managed to live it to the full and even attended college to become a trial lawyer. What's more is that he is currently in the process of writing a book.

Credit: The Washington Times

"When I transferred to the University of Texas, they were horrified to think that I was going to bring my iron lung down, but I did, and I put it in the dorm, and I lived in the dorm with my iron lung," Paul revealed. "I had a thousand friends before it was over with, who all wanted to find out what's that guy downstairs with a head sticking out of a machine doing here?"

We would like to take this opportunity to wish Paul and Randolph all the best. Hopefully, in sharing their stories, they will increase the already strong desire to completely consign polio to the history books. No one should have to spend so much of their time in an iron lung. Their willingness to survive despite this is a true testament to their strength of character.