Generator fails woman in iron lung

Times Staff Writer

For the first time in more than half a century, the Odell residence is quiet.

There are no squeaks and pops from the electric motor that powered an “iron lung” pumping air in and out of Dianne Odell’s body.

A thunderstorm knocked out the power to her home Wednesday, shutting off the massive metal machine that had helped her breathe for nearly 60 years.

It was about 3 a.m. when the electricity went out at Odell’s home in Jackson, a small Tennessee town about 90 miles northeast of Memphis. An emergency generator did not start, and Odell died as her father and brother-in-law took turns pumping the iron lung manually.


Dianne Odell, 61, was believed to be the nation’s oldest survivor of polio to have spent almost all of her life inside an iron lung.

She had been confined within the 7-foot-long, 750-pound machine ever since she was paralyzed at the age of 3 by bulbospinal polio. That was in 1950, just a few years before a polio vaccine was discovered.

Her parents, Freeman and Geneva Odell, were determined to care for her at home, even though her entire body was encased in a cylindrical metal chamber. Only her head extended outside of it.

She lay on her back as the metal lung produced positive and negative pressure that allowed her lungs to expand and contract.

Doctors at the time told Odell’s parents she did not have long to live, but she went on to graduate from high school, take college classes -- even write a book from within the sealed, airtight compartment.

Life at 133 Odell St. came to revolve around Dianne, with her parents taking turns going to church so someone was always home to feed her and talk to her. The family never took vacations. At Christmas, they would squeeze Dianne, inside the metal machine, into the dining room for the holiday dinner.


“It was like having a sick child who never got better,” said Will Beyer, her brother-in-law. “But she was a very unique person, and her family took care of all her needs.”

A television was mounted on a frame just above her head. A straw was rigged to the television remote control, so she could suck in and blow out to switch to her favorite soap operas.

Her hair was often adorned with scarves, even tiaras.

From the beginning, Dianne’s parents worried about power outages. Her father, Freeman, a World War II veteran, installed a generator in the backyard as a backup power system.

When an ice storm knocked out power more than 30 years ago, he brewed a pot of coffee and sat beside her, cranking the huge machine with his hands and feet as he waited for the National Guard to bring out a diesel generator.

Freeman Odell, who worked for a telephone company, also installed an intercom system connecting the Jackson Central-Merry High School to the Odell home, so Dianne could listen to classes from her bedroom. She took classes from Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., but health problems forced her to quit before she could earn a degree. The university eventually awarded her an honorary degree.

Using a voice-activated computer, she wrote a children’s book about a tiny star that wanted to be a wishing star. She even helped out with local political campaigns, making phone calls for state senators.

Polio has been virtually eradicated in America. There were only 1,313 cases worldwide last year, according to the World Health Organization.

Iron lungs are no longer manufactured. In the 1950s, the machines were replaced by devices such as positive-pressure airway ventilators that allowed patients to be more mobile. But Odell’s spinal deformity meant she could not wear them.

“Dianne spent more than 50 years inside an iron lung -- her entire world was the iron lung -- but she adapted,” said Frank McMeen, president of West Tennessee Healthcare Foundation, which organized a fund for the Odell family. “She tutored children. She spoke at the Rotary club. You have a very remarkable person who managed to do all the things we do in our lives.”

In recent years, Odell suffered a series of mini-strokes. With her parents’ health also declining -- Freeman has dementia and Geneva has Alzheimer’s disease -- her sisters, Donna and Mary Beth, took care of her, assisted by friends, neighbors and church members.

More than a thousand people, including former Vice President Al Gore and actor David Keith, attended a 2001 gala to raise money for Odell.

“To let her go is very hard,” Beyer said. “Dianne was always a fighter. No matter what anyone said, you couldn’t count her out.”

“She liked to quote that John Denver song, ‘Some Days Are Diamonds, Some Days Are Stone,’ ” Beyer said. “What got her through it all was her faith, her family and her friends.”