For months, Cassie Nespor has been looking to incorporate the five senses into the exhibits at the Rose Melnick Medical Museum on the YSU campus, especially for the popular “iron lung” artificial respirator.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if people could get into (the iron lung),’ but I couldn’t let them into the real one that we have,” said Nespor, museum curator. “The YSU carpenters were here at the museum for something else, so I mentioned it to them, and they started thinking about it and said, ‘Yeah, we could do that.’”
Enter Andy Phillips, YSU carpenter and primary force behind the effort to build a replica “iron lung” that visitors could get in and experience the feeling patients would have had 60 years ago when the devices were used to treat polio.
“The dimensions inside are about the same as the original,” said Phillips, who spent time wandering Lowe’s home improvement store wondering what would work to make a copy of the machine that measures 6-feet long, 4.5-feet tall, and 29-inches in diameter inside the cylinder.
“Basically, I got a piece of drainage pipe, so the inside dimensions are the same as the original, and covered it in bendable plywood, called wiggle-wood. We laminated the outside and made cutouts for all the windows.”
The work, which took three months to complete, was finished entirely on campus, with assistance from painter Joe Donatelli, sheet metal worker Fred Suman, carpenter Alan Parker, and electrician Jim Filicky, who wired the replica to allow it to light up inside. University photographer Bruce Palmer took photographs of the decals on the original, and Graphic Services printed them as durable adhesives.
“The windows are Plexiglas that I heated to put curvature to them,” said Phillips. “Even the bellow has some travel to it to feel as though it is actually being pumped.”
Nespor said many visitors have been inside the replica since it was finished in July. “We had college students in, and it’s so funny because they’re reluctant to go in, but the elementary school kids love to go in,” she said. “We had a mechanical ventilation class from Respiratory Care here at YSU, we had some college classes, community college, technical institutes, but also elementary, middle and high schools and have had some summer programs come.”
The “iron lung” replica is based on the early 1950s Emerson Respirator in the museum collection. The real one has an airtight seal around the patient’s neck while the torso goes into the metal canister. Electric bellows cause the air pressure inside the chamber to rise and fall, causing the lungs to inflate and deflate as though the patient were breathing.
Severe cases of polio cause the part of the brain that controls breathing to become inflamed. Most polio patients used the artificial respiration machines for a month or less, but some for much longer. According to Guinness World Records, a woman in Australia relied on an “iron lung” to keep her alive from 1949 until her death in 2009, the record for the longest time inside such a device.
For more information on the museum, visit the Rose Melnick Medical Museum online.
Story by Harry Evans