1954, Part 4

To John and the other guys confined to iron lungs, the young new nurse Clara was what masturbatory fantasies were made of. John was still a virgin and he hadn’t had an erection since the illness started, but he still fantasized endlessly about Clara. After all, there wasn’t much else to do. Plus, most of the nurses qualified to work with the sickest patients in iron lungs were older and unattractive. Clara was a breath of fresh air.

Of course, there wasn’t much he could do about his fantasies. He hadn’t gotten an erection since he had gotten sick and the doctors had insinuated that he wouldn’t be able to have sex. Even if his sexual functioning returned, there wasn’t much he could do with both his arms paralyzed—he couldn’t masturbate, that was for sure. But none of that meant he appreciated Clara any less.

The younger boys certainly appreciated the pretty young nurse, but the older guys looked at her with unbridled lust. Some of them joked around, “Next time Clara comes in here, I’m going to ask her to marry me.”

Clara didn’t wear a ring, but John knew a girl like her had to at least have a boyfriend. And even if she didn’t, it wasn’t like she was going to chose a boyfriend who was paralyzed from the neck down and dependent on an iron lung. Still, he enjoyed her company and she seemed to enjoy his as well. She was the only nurse in the ward who didn’t make him feel bad about the difficulty he was having weaning off the lung. When she tended to his body, she was careful to keep the lung open for as short a time as possible, as opposed to the other nurses, who kept it open until just before he was ready to pass out.

John felt bad enough about his difficulties weaning off the lung. They usually kept the lung open for longer and longer periods of time until the patient eventually didn’t need it at all. Unfortunately, John just couldn’t seem to extend his time past sixty seconds. Every time they would try to go longer, he would start to black out. The first few times, he was disappointed; the next few times, he was frustrated; now he was fearful. Some of the other guys who had started trying to wean at the same time as him had already been moved to rocker beds—and here he was, still completely dependent.

And his limbs were still completely paralyzed. At the same time, he still had full sensation, so it was the discomfort that bothered him more than anything. His bedsores ached and his muscles spasmed and then there was the itching. Most nurses were used to dealing with a room full of paralyzed boys so they were fairly unsympathetic: “I’ll turn you when I’m good and ready and there’s not a peep out of you.” His diaper was often soiled and uncomfortable. He knew the nurses were overworked, but he didn’t think his requests were unreasonable.

The best thing about Clara was that she anticipated his needs. Before he had the itch, Clara was ready to scratch him where he needed it. Instead of scolding him for his bedsores like the other nurses did, she blamed herself and said she needed to do a better job turning him.

The downside was that Clara brought out his modest side. After all this time, John had become use to nurses tending to his most intimate needs, but it was different with Clara. He found himself feeling self-conscious when she was looking at his naked, crippled body. He imagined that he must disgust her, but she never said anything to that effect. He guessed she was used to it by now.

“Can I ask you something, Clara?” John said, one evening that she was on duty.

“Of course,” she replied pleasantly.

“Do... do you think I’m ever going to get out of this iron lung?” he said, studying her face for her reaction. “The doctors say I’m not going to and... and it’s been so long, I’m beginning to think that... that they’re right.” John felt his eyes well up with saltwater.

Clara looked at him for a long time. She reached out and wiped a tear from his eye. “John, I think that either way, you will live your life.”

John stared at her, wondering how someone so young could be so wise.

David’s mother was with him for a visit when the doctor came in with his first pair of leg braces. “You can start walking on the parallel bars tomorrow, David,” the doctor said.

David, who was sitting in his wheelchair, stared up at the braces, which looked like they contained about ten pounds of metal. They were built to run the full length of his legs, from his heels to his groin. He didn’t know how those heavy things were going to help him walk. He felt sick at the idea of wearing them.

“Those don’t look so bad,” his mother commented.

David edged away from the braces. He didn’t even want to touch them. “I’m not going to be wearing those all the time,” he said, his voice rising with agitation.

“Of course not,” the doctor said. David’s shoulders relaxed slightly until the doctor added: “You’ll also have your wheelchair.”

“No, I mean... what about walking without braces?”

The doctor exchanged looks with David’s mother. Apparently, this was something that had been discussed. She picked up his hand. “David, the doctors feel that... your legs aren’t going to get much stronger than they are right now. You’re going to need these braces for the rest of your life.”

David felt his world falling out from under him—all his hope was suddenly gone. He gripped his knees until his knuckles turned white. That was it, he was going to be crippled permanently. He’d never play football again... and he wouldn’t be able to dance with Marilyn at the senior prom. He felt his eyes well up with tears, although he hated the idea of crying in front of the doctor. “Can... can I be alone?”

His mother and the doctor left the room, but it was hard to be alone in this place—Walt was sleeping in his bed and Tom was sitting in his wheelchair next to his bed, reading a book. David turned his chair away from Tom, buried his face in his hands, and cried quietly.

“I told you so,” Tom said from across the room.

David didn’t answer him, not trusting his voice. Tom hated being ignored and wheeled across the room to get David’s attention. “Hey, Football Hero, I’m talking to you. How’s it feel to one of the outcasts now?”

David lifted his face to look at Tom. The freckles on Tom’s cheeks looked blurry. “It’s not my fault I was decent at football, okay?”

“Yeah, I bet you dated a cheerleader too, huh Barnett?”

He had no answer for that. Tom was right. He had been right about everything.

“And now you’re going to have to go back to your school with braces and crutches...” Tom went on. “Boy, that’s going to be tough.”

It was uncanny how Tom managed to always touch upon what David was most sensitive about. It took all of David’s self restraint to keep from giving Tom a good shove. “What’s your problem, anyway?”

“I don’t have a problem,” Tom replied. “I enjoy seeing a jock finding out how the other half lives.”

“I’m glad you’re happy my life is ruined.”

Tom shrugged, but it was lopsided due to his weak shoulder. “Your life isn’t ruined. Look at Walt over there. He’ll be lucky if he can even use a wheelchair.”

“Why don’t you take a long walk off a short pier, Tom?” Walt retorted sleepily.

“Sure, stick up for the football hero,” Tom snorted. “Just remember, Walt, if we were back in high school, he’d be feeding you knuckle sandwiches.”

With those words, Tom wheeled himself out of the room.

David sat in his chair, staring down at his legs. His feet were supported by the footrests—otherwise he didn’t have the muscle strength to keep them from scraping against the floor. Every time he closed his eyes, he could picture those metal braces. He tried to imagine what his legs would look like with all that metal.

“He’s right, you know,” Walt said.

David looked up. “Huh?”

“I’d give anything to be able to walk with braces right now,” Walt said. “I’d give anything to even be able to use a wheelchair. To get out of this damn bed.”

David frowned. Walt had already been through one surgery and it hadn’t been successful in stabilizing his spine. Walt had been lying in that bed for months now, but rarely complained about his situation.

David looked back at the thick metal braces lying on his bed. He hadn’t stood up once since his fever broke, and he knew the only way he’d be able to do so anymore would be with these braces. If he didn’t want to spend his life confined to a wheelchair, he had to get to learn how to use them.


What John Gallagher thought about most during those long hospital days in the iron lung was when he’d finally be able to go home. He loved seeing Clara, of course, but most of the nurses were quite rude. He missed his house and his mother’s cooking and the fun he used to have with his brothers. His brothers were too young to be allowed into the ward and he hadn’t seen them once since he got sick.

John was beginning to accept the fact that the paralysis was permanent and he was going to be dependent on an iron lung for the rest of his life. He went through a period of depression, but he soon realized that being depressed wasn’t going to get him out of the hospital.

He knew he had to be able to breathe on his own for a reasonable period of time before he’d be allowed to leave. His new record was now ten minutes, although it felt like the longest ten minutes of his life. Clara had been there for that time and she smiled down at him, giving him the strength to keep going. He could feel her holding his hand, although he couldn’t give her a squeeze back like he wanted to.

When she shut the iron lung again, he felt like he had just run a marathon. He closed his eyes, exhausted. “Ten minutes, great job,” she said.

John just grinned at her, too tired to speak.

“You’re all sweaty,” Clara observed, wiping his brow with a towel.

“Next time I’m going for twelve minutes,” John managed.

He didn’t make it to twelve minutes the next time, but he managed to get to ten again. He was making slow progress, but it was fairly steady. He saw some of the other guys on the ward being allowed out of their respirators and into wheelchairs for brief periods. John felt intensely jealous of these other boys using wheelchairs. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to wheel the chair by himself, but at least it would allow him to leave this room.

“When can I come home, Mom?” John asked his mother during her weekly visit.

“We’re working on it, Johnny,” she promised, smoothing out his hair. “We just need to get a respirator for the house, plus we need to hire an attendant to help take care of you.”

“An attendant?” John frowned. “But why can’t you and dad take care of me? You’ve got Bill and George to help too.”

“Honey, you need 24 hour a day care now,” she reminded him.

“I know,” John mumbled. When he got home, other people were going to have to help him with all his needs, probably for the rest of his life. He would need to be fed, bathed, dressed, turned, and have his catheter and diaper changed for him. And assuming he’d be able to get into a wheelchair for at least part of the day, he’d need someone to help him into the wheelchair and push it for him.

John imagined that his mother and father would assist him with his more intimate needs, but his younger brothers could help with the transfers and feeding. He knew it would be a lot of work, but he didn’t think that they needed to hire a whole other person to help out.

As if reading his mind, his mother said, “Bill and George are still too young to help take care of you. And what if I’m busy with the boys or out doing errands and I can’t help you?”

“You don’t have to be with me every second,” John pointed out. “I am an adult.”

“Besides,” she went on, “the doctor says you can’t come home until you can stay out of the respirator long enough to survive a power outage.”

“How long is that?”

His mother averted her eyes. “Three hours.”

John stared at her. This was news to him. “Three hours? But... but I’ll never make it that long! I can’t even stay out for more than ten minutes now!”

“Johnny, you know the power goes out sometimes,” she said. “Here they have back-up power. What would you do if the power went out while you were home?”

She had a valid point, but it didn’t make it any easier to accept. “So what am I supposed to do?” he asked. “Live the rest of my life in this hospital?”

“No, of course not,” she said. “If you can’t breathe for long enough on your own, you’ll eventually be transferred to a nursing facility.”

“An old folks home?” John cried. “But I’m only nineteen! You can’t send me there!”

“John, quiet down,” his mother scolded him. “You just need to work on building up your tolerance, that’s all. I’m sure you can make it to three hours. Then you can come home.”

Three hours out of the respirator? She may as well have been asking him to climb Mount Everest (or walk across the room, which was equally unlikely). How could he possibly turn his ten minute tolerance into three hours?

To be continued...