ASHLAND, Ky. – Blanche Allen is 87 years older, enjoyed a 35-year career as a nurse and runs her own household.
But 55 years ago, her every breath was produced through an apparatus called an Iron Lung.
Allen is a polio survivor who as a young nurse and mother of two in the early 1960s depended on the Iron Lung to breathe for a month of her life after learning she had contracted polio despite taking the vaccine.
“I was paralyzed,” she said. “They took me to the ER. I was in terrible shape. My sister checked on me before she turned in for the night. It was 11:30 or 12 at night and it felt like there was a 100-pound weight on my neck.”
Allen, who was paralyzed from the neck down, was only the fourth from Boyd County to have contracted the disease at that time. She was one of the first to use an Iron Lung, a machine that resembles a hot water heater.
Polio patients were put inside the machine with only their head sticking out and it mechanically put breath in their lungs.
Allen said she was in and out of it and doesn’t remember much about her time inside the Iron Lung. She was fed through tubes. Her children, girls ages 5 and 11, never saw their mother inside the machine.
“They could hear it (from the hallway) but never saw me in it,” Allen said.
Allen was in the Our Lady of Bellefonte hospital in Greenup County and her doctor, Clarence Haberle, had the Iron Lung sent from King’s Daughters in Ashland.
“I remember they brought it over in a pickup truck,” Allen said.
She said. the day they let her come home, the doctor wheeled her to the car. “He said ‘I never thought I’d see the day you’d go home and go to church every Sunday. He let you live to raise the girls.”
Allen returned to her job as a nurse in the hospital where she was sick and the Iron Lung was in the basement.
“I never went to see it,” she said.
Allen’s family has a history of long lives. Her grandmother lived to be 103 and her sister was 18 days shy of 100.
“Without that Iron Lung, I’d be gone,” she said.
One of the missions of Rotary International is to eradicate polio from the world. A coalition of nine Rotary clubs in the Tri-State area near Ashland will come together Sunday, Oct. 28, for a special day at the Paramount Arts Center.
The film “Breathe,” the true life story of a polio survivor, will be shown on the historic theater’s big screen at 3 p.m. The movie was released in 2017 and tells the story of Robin Cavendish, who contracted polio at 28 and was given only months to live. He survived with the help of his wife and inventor Teddy Hall to escape the hospital ward and devote the rest of his life to helping fellow patients and the disabled.
Polio survivors will be on hand as will Iron Lungs that were for children and adults. Allen plans on coming to the event which also includes a short film called “Polio Survivor Stories” produced by Randy Yohe, a former local news television reporter, and his wife Vickie.
He interviews several polio survivors who tell their story in the film. Ashland residents Trish Hall and Don Setterman and Ann Bryant of Catlettsburg are among those in the video.
Tickets are $10 and proceeds benefit Rotary International’s PolioPlus Fund and be matched 2 to 1 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has pledged $450 million to right polio from 2017-2019.
Polio has been eradicated from the United States since 1979. The global fight continues. In 2018, a total of 20 cases was reported in the world. A country must go without a case for three years to be declared polio-free.
Wednesday was World Polio Day.