Polio never dented a life of iron will

8 05 2009

Childhood friend Ann Sipe, who grew up with Martha Mason in Cleveland County, kisses her goodbye after a visit in 2003


Martha Mason used a voice-activated computer to read the newspaper and check her e-mails at her home in Lattimore. She also used the device to write her book “Breath.” Polio paralyzed Martha Mason from the neck down in 1948, and she spent the rest of her days inside an iron lung, an 800-pound airtight tube that breathed for her. First-time visitors to her home in the Cleveland County town of Lattimore were startled when they saw her head sticking of the big yellow machine powered by an electric motor. But Mason, who died Monday at 71, made them forget about her fragile condition as she talked passionately about politics and literature, theology and vegetable gardens. Uncomplaining and good-humored, she usually sent folks away feeling better than when they came. “Martha was the most amazing example of what the human spirit is capable of despite all the adversity,” said longtime friend Charles Cornwell of Charleston, S.C. “She was a very strong person.”

According to St. Louis-based Post-Polio Health International, Mason was one of fewer than 20 people in the U.S. still living in iron lungs. Executive Director Joan Headley said the organization had no statistics on the average length of time people live in iron lungs, but that Mason was one of the longest survivors. “When reporters called about how it was to live in an iron lung I referred them to her (Mason),” Headley said. “She was always gracious about talking. She seemed to always have a good spirit. I think she hit the right balance: This is a real challenge. It’s not what I might have chosen for my life. But I’ll do the best I can.”

Mason’s friend from childhood and a former Davidson College English professor, Cornwell encouraged her to write the 2003 autobiography “Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung,” which he also edited. Cornwell described her in the book as the person who’d lived longer in an iron lung than any polio survivor in the world. On the book jacket, N.C. novelist Reynolds Price, who is partially paralyzed from a spinal tumor, said Mason “writes with eloquence and fearless clarity about one of the most extraordinary lives I’ve ever known.” Cornwell knew Mason when she was “a frolicsome tomboy running all over Lattimore. She was very athletic,” he said. “She was riding a bike and running constantly.”

A few days after the polio epidemic of 1948 killed Mason’s older brother, Gaston, she came down with the same virus and never walked again. But polio didn’t deter her from going to college. She received a two-year degree from Gardner-Webb College (now University) and graduated from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. Mason and her parents lived on Wake’s campus, where she stayed in her room and listened to class lectures through an intercom system. In 1960, she graduated first in her class and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.

When she was younger, Mason could stay out of the iron lung for a few hours, but the periods shortened as she grew older. Around-the-clock caretakers stayed with her and friends from the community checked in daily for conversation. “She could explore any subject to any depth you wanted to go,” Cornwell said. “She was a discriminating reader. And she loved good juicy gossip. I don’t think anybody enjoyed a ribald story any more than Martha.” Mason wrote her memoir – and later several short stories – on a voice activated computer. Friends e-mailed her messages and showed her video footage of trips they’d taken. “We brought the world to her,” said neighbor Polly Fite, who’d known Mason for 50 years. “She was always involved with you, encouraging you and wanting to know what you were doing next. She rewarded the person, instead of looking for the reward.” The iron will that Fite had seen her friend display for a half century had begun to weaken. In December, 2007, Fite said Mason had gone through a 24-hour period where she was listless and unresponsive. A doctor had been called, but Fite said Mason finally opened her eyes, smiled and said: “That was a dress rehearsal.”

Late Sunday, Fite visited Mason and found her severely congested from allergies. “I told her she needed to see a doctor,” Fite said. “But she said no, she didn’t want to take any medicine.” After 61 years in an iron lung “she knew she was tired,” Fite said. Mason died peacefully in her sleep early Monday, one month from her 72nd birthday. She’ll be buried Wednesday beside her parents and brother.

In the obituary, the list of survivors is short: Mason’s longtime caregivers, Ginger Justice and Melissa Boheler.

Looking back over their friendship, Fite said Mason will be an inspiration “for many, many years to come. I guess you could say she was a miracle.”

– Source: Charlotte Observer, May 05, 2009




5 responses

12 05 2009

Thanks for sharing this great story – I was needing some inspiration today & a colleague sent me a link to your blog – outstanding!

14 05 2009
Quinton McCauley

Thanks for the comment, Tony – glad you enjoyed it!

Had a look at your blog just now and think it’s awesome – especially liked the “Land of milk & honey” and “Staying ahead of the pack” posts. Great to see people putting the inspiration and challenge out there.


15 05 2009

Thanks Quinton. I hope you enjoyed your conference. I work with financial advisers in NZ.

1 09 2010

Martha Mason is like Chuck Klesath in a way. (Explanation: Chuck Klesath and Martha Mason had no immediate family of their own.) Klesath fell ill and went Home to be with the Lord.

26 08 2011

Martha Mason died almost one year after Lorenzo Michael Murphy Odone. Odone died of pneumonia and his remains were cremated per Augusto Odone’s request.

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