1954, Part 6

John lay in his iron lung as he did every day, staring into the mirror positioned above his head. He could see the reflection of Miss Foley tending to another boy and he hoped she’d stop by him next. He really wanted to be turned and he could feel that his diaper was wet and needed to be changed. He didn’t dare request these things though—a request was a guarantee that she would ignore him.

John’s hopes soared as he watched Miss Foley’s reflection growing closer. Before he knew it, she was standing right over him and he could look into her eyes without use of the mirror. “Did you hear the news, John?” she asked him.

He frowned. “What news?”

“I thought you’d like to know,” Miss Foley said. “The tests on the polio vaccine have been successful. They’re going to start to give the vaccine to everyone now. Soon there won’t be any new polios.”

The news felt like a slap in the face, especially when delivered by Miss Foley. Sure, he was glad that they had licked the disease. But what good did that do him? He was still just as crippled. He was still stuck in this iron lung for the rest of his life. It was too late for him.

John found himself wondering what his life would have been like if he hadn’t gotten polio. By now, he would have saved up a nice little amount of money in the bank. Maybe he’d be dating a nice girl. He was submerged in the fantasy of what could have been when his mother came in for a visit.

“Hi, Mom,” he said, trying to sound cheerful.

“How are you doing, Johnny?” She ran her fingers through his hair. He hadn’t had his hair washed in weeks, and it was very oily.

“I’m fine,” John said. He offered her a smile.

“I brought something for you,” she said, reaching into her purse. He hoped it was some decent food, but it turned out to be a little pamphlet. “This is the brochure for Willow Glen Nursing Facility. I thought you might like to take a look at it. It’s really quite nice.”

Before John could protest, his mother held the pamphlet up in his face. He stared at the photo of the hedges lining the outside of the nursing home. Of course, if he went there, he wouldn’t get to see the outside very much, since he couldn’t leave the respirator. He shook his head, “Mom, I told you, I don’t want to go there.”

“Let me just read you the brochure,” his mother insisted. “Willow Glen has one of the highest nurse-to-patient ratios in—”

“Mom, I’m not going to a nursing home!” John snapped. He began to feel a little out of breath, even within the comfort of the lung.

To his dismay, he saw his mother’s eyes fill with tears. “What do you want me to do, Johnny? We can’t bring you home if you can’t breathe on your own. What if… what if the power went off and you… you…”

As much as John hated the idea of a nursing home, he didn’t like the thought of trying to breathe without his respirator either. Every time they opened it up to clean him, he felt pangs of fear in his chest. He remembered the figure his mother had quoted: three hours. He had to be able to breathe on his own for three hours before he could leave this place.

I can do this, John told himself desperately.

Overnight, John devised a plan. He decided that his fear of being out of the respirator was part of what kept him from being able to breathe on his own. So he had to conquer that fear. It was the only way he’d ever go home.

He waited for a night when Clara was on service. He knew she always came to him to change and turn him without him having to ask, so he was patient. Finally, around ten o’clock in the evening, after most of the younger boys had gone to sleep, she came to tend to him.

“How are you doing today, John?” she asked him.

“I’m fine,” he said, training his eyes on the curves outlined underneath her white uniform.

“Are you ready?” she asked him, her hand poised to open the lung.

“No, wait,” he said. “I want you to do something for me.”

Clara raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“See, the thing is…” John bit his lip. “If I can’t breathe on my own for three hours, my parents are going to send me to a nursing home. I can’t go there, Clara, I can’t. I want to go home. So I’ve got to start breathing on my own for a longer period.” He felt embarrassed to tell her about the nursing home. He didn’t want her to think of him like an invalid, even if that’s what he was.

“What do you want me to do?” Clara asked, her brows furrowed in concern.

“I want you to keep the lung open, no matter what,” John told her. “No matter how much I’m struggling. Keep it open until I pass out.”

Clara’s eyes widened. “I can’t…”


Finally, Clara nodded. “Okay, we’ll try it,” she agreed.

As soon as Clara opened the lung, the panic set in. But he knew that no matter what, he had to get used to a few minutes like this so that she could tend to his body. He felt his diaper being removed and the coolness of the water being used to clean his behind. She re-diapered him and then began to clean the rest of him. He felt the sponge running over his flaccid torso, then he felt her lifting his arm to clean that off. She pulled apart his fingers to clean them individually.

John had been holding his own until Clara got to his fingers, but it had been a good ten minutes now and he was beginning to really struggle. He just couldn’t seem to push past that ten minute mark. He saw spots appearing before his eyes and he realized he was close to passing out.

He felt the tears starting to come. He couldn’t do this. He had no choice but to go to the nursing home.


At age twenty-two, Clara Mancini hadn’t been a nurse for very long, but she was extremely astute and capable, which was why they allowed her to work with the boys in iron lungs—the sickest in the hospital. Clara loved children and she knew how frustrating it was for the little ones not to be able to move and be confined to their respirators. It saddened her to know that there were a few who would never leave. But in general, the youngest children did the best.

The most difficult patients were the ones who were nearly adults, like John Gallagher. They tended to have the worst recovery as well as the worst adjustment to their condition. She knew from experience that John was going to be badly disabled for the rest of his life. He would almost certainly be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. The best he could have hoped for was to be able to stay out of the respirator long enough to live at home and possibly even go back to school, but now it seemed like even that wasn’t very likely.

She saw a change in John’s personality over the last few months. When she first met him, he was more optimistic, always cracking jokes. Now he was more subdued as he started to accept the reality of his disability. She saw the look on his face when the other boys moved from their respirators into wheelchairs and she knew it would tear John apart if he couldn’t ever go home.

It was especially hard to treat a patient so close to her own age. John very much reminded her of a boy she dated back in high school, who had left to join the army. Even though it seemed unfair to do so, she found herself paying extra attention to John during her shifts. A few times, she noticed John looking at her breasts, but she hadn’t said anything. It was hardly the first time something like that had happened—she knew many of the older boys were a bit infatuated with her.

When John told her his plan to avoid the nursing home, her heart went out to him. She knew it was all wishful thinking on his part, but she was willing to go along with it. He had to feel like he was trying everything.

She obligingly opened up the lung, exposing his unclothed body inside. She knew John hadn’t seen his body in a long time and she worried it would be a shock to him when he finally did. His arms and legs had lost all their muscle tone and were now mostly just bone. His stomach bulged slightly, probably because he was backed up, and the white cloth diaper looked enormous. Clara undid the pins and saw that he probably hadn’t been changed all day.

Clara could only imagine how mortifying it was for a nineteen-year-old boy to have to go back to wearing diapers. He’d probably have to wear them for the rest of his life too. It was better than enemas, at least.

When John was completely changed, she checked his face to see how he was doing. He nodded at her that he was okay, although he seemed to be gasping a bit. Clara decided to try to clean him up, as baths were a rare occurrence around here. She took the bucket of warm water she had brought over with her and began to sponge off his chest. John didn’t have a very hairy chest, but it was still a contrast from when she bathed the little ones. She worked her way to his limp arms, lifting his hands to clean off his fingers. She inspected them for any signs of movement, even a slight twitch, but there were none.

At that point, Clara heard the gasping. John was in real respiratory distress now. Some of the other nurses shrugged off the boys’ complaints that they couldn’t breathe, but Clara couldn’t do that. She reached over to close the respirator, but then she saw John’s lips mouthing the words: “Don’t do it.”

Clara didn’t know what to do. She could see his eyes starting to roll up in his head and knew that he was going to pass out any second. His chest wasn’t moving at all.

That was when Clara hit on the idea. Many of the boys transitioned into “rocker beds” after they left the iron lungs. These were beds that helped their weak muscles to move air in and out of their real lungs. John was too dependent on the respirator to be moved to a rocker bed, but Clara wondered if she couldn’t simulate what the rocker bed did.

She laid her hands on his chest and began to massage his rib cage. She lifted his ribs, trying to simulate the motions of breathing. To her surprise, this seemed to help him a little bit. He appeared to be inhaling and exhaling air now. He managed the words as a whisper: “Please keep doing that.”

She continued to rub his chest, but she noticed that more and more, she was doing less of the work for him. He was really starting to breathe a little bit on his own. But she knew he could feel her rubbing him, so she kept on doing it. She worked her way down the length of his chest, rubbing and massaging his soft flesh. She kneaded the skin of his belly, her fingers brushing against the cusp of his diaper.

John was still alert, still breathing on his own. Clara noticed that a small tent was forming under his diaper. She knew it was most likely a weak erection, possibly his first since the paralysis had set in. She considered telling him but she thought he’d probably just feel embarrassed.

Clara didn’t realize how long she had been massaging John until she heard the cries of several children competing for her attention. She looked up at a clock on the wall and saw that it had been nearly forty minutes.

“You can close the respirator,” he told her, in several gasps.

She shut the machine and she watched the color go back into his face.

“How long was that?” he asked.

“Thirty-eight minutes,” she told him.

There were tears in John’s eyes. “Thank you,” he whispered.

He looked like he wanted to kiss her. Clara decided to take the initiative. She lowered her lips onto his for a brief kiss. John smiled at her and his eyes fluttered closed. The effort of breathing had worn him out and he didn’t wake up again until after Clara had left for the night.

To be continued...