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Museum Receives First Burnham Hospital Iron Lung from Martindale Family.

On August 9, 1948, Polio cases were rising across Champaign-Urbana and the entire nation. That day, Burnham Hospital received its first life-saving iron lung donated by the Champaign Retail Liquor Dealers Association. The donation of the machine came at a critical time as patients needing this kind of specialized care were transported to Springfield or Peoria. However, by the late summer of 1948, polio wards across the state were filling up.

Burnham's Iron Lung was presented to Professor J.J. Doland, President of the Hospital Board, and Mrs. Rosemary Bilodeau, Superintendent of Nurses, by James Kane, Elmer Kelly, Charles Bidwell, and "Bud" Elrod, directors of the liquor dealers association. Also on hand for the donation was Paul Gebhard of the manufacturer G.H. Emerson Company, who explained the operation of the machine. At the time of this donation, iron lungs sold for approximately $1,200 a unit, equivalent to $14,000 today.

A Lifetime of Service

The museum is grateful to Kevin Martindale for making this wonderful donation to the museum. This was the first iron lung at Burnham City Hospital and likely the first in Champaign County. Still, the unit continued to bring comfort to one particular county resident until 2005. Marlene Martindale was diagnosed with Polio in 1953 at 13, the year after the Salk vaccine was announced. Her infantile paralysis affected her lungs and left her paralyzed in her left arm and right leg for the rest of her life. To Marlene, this unit was "her friend," With this donation, her husband hopes to dispel the fear and negative perceptions of Iron Lungs and help educate future generations about the ravaging effects of diseases like polio.

Marlene Ann Plutchak Martindale (1940-2005)

After struggling with breathing issues her entire life, Marlene learned to breathe using her throat muscles at an early age. This breathing method gave her freedom from the Iron Lung, but she would become hospitalized with breathing issues such as pneumonia or bronchitis from time to time.

In the mid-1990s, Marlene ended up at Burnham Hospital and desperately needed relief. Iron Lungs are the closest approximation of natural breathing and, therefore, much easier on the body (versus today's method of intubation).

The hospital records indicated they no longer had an Iron Lung in their inventory. Still, thanks to the head of the hospital's Respiratory Department, this early Iron Lung was found in the basement. A new seal had to be manufactured by Kevin and the staff, but it worked, and Marlene could use it during her ten-day stay. After that stay, the hospital decided not to continue maintaining the unit since one could be brought from Chicago if needed within 24 hours. There was seemingly no longer a local need. Therefore, the Martindales worked out a handshake deal with the hospital to obtain the unit. The hospital staff even delivered it to their Urbana home. From that point on, and with the help of Kevin, who was a trained electrician, the Martindales maintained the device in their garage for any time it was needed.

In another instance, Marlene was once again hospitalized at Carle Hospital, but the hospital didn't have an Iron Lung for use. Surprisingly, the hospital allowed Kevin and his friends to load the device on their truck and bring it from their home for use in the hospital.

Marlene continued to find comfort using this Iron Lung until she died in 2005. Even more remarkable is that Smithsonian Magazine reported in a 2021 article that in 2004, only 39 people were still using Iron Lungs in the United States.

Not only was this Iron Lung the first to arrive in Champaign County it was also the last in use nearly six decades later (and it still runs!). Thank you to both Kevin and Marlene for maintaining this unit in working order and donating the Iron Lung to educate future generations on this medical marvel.


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