July 21st, 2007 | Published in Google.org
I'm en route home from a three day shoot in Lattimore, North Carolina with a woman who contracted polio in 1948 and lives in an iron lung.
In 1994, Martha Mason wrote a book called "Breath" about her life, which is how I found her. Her memoir not only brings to life the polio epidemics of the 1940s; her descriptions take you inside the cocoon of steel she has lived in for nearly 60 years. The iron lung encases all but her neck and face. Inside the lung lies Martha's inert body, her diaphragm gently rising up and down to the sound of the mechanical bellows sucking air in and out of the air-tight chamber. The six foot-long chamber runs on electricity and gives Martha her every breath. Something as banal as a power outage or a tripped circuit could end her life within four or five minutes.
And yet it never has. Everything about Martha tells you she is a survivor. She became paralyzed with polio just days after her only brother, Gaston, died from it. Her parents knelt down and made a deal with God in 1948: If He would spare their only remaining child, they would dedicate their lives to caring for her. And care for her they did — for 50 more years, until their own deaths. Today, Martha still lives in the house where she first got sick, a simple farmhouse just down the street from the Baptist Church in her town of 300 people. Back in the 60s, Martha spent four years at Wake Forest University (where she graduated Valedictorian), otherwise, she's pretty content to stay at home. Shelby, where you'll find the nearest Wal-Mart or gas station, is 13 miles away.
Hillary Clinton's saying is, "it takes a village," and in Martha's case, Lattimore has helped keep her going all these years. "It's been a pretty good ride," she kept telling me in her characteristic good humor. She has three round-the-clock caregivers, one of whom she taught to read 20 years ago. Martha gets a visitor just about every day, and a local friend set her up with a voice-recognition computer which she uses "to travel the world." (She also reads four newspapers a day.) The Baptist Church tapes its service every Sunday for her. The doctors make house calls. Even though polio seems all but disappeared in this country, in this tiny American town, they haven't forgotten it. How can they? They have Martha.