Woman in iron lung dies during power outage
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.
“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.”
A true inspiration. Life will always remind us when we think we have things hard, that there is always someone else out there that has it a bit tougher. In the case of Dianne Odell, she made the most of what she had and he family made incredible sacrifices for her.
God Bless the Odell family at this time and may Dianne rest in peace.