The Iron Lung and Margaret Pfrommer

By Anna Zaharakos, Owner, Studio Z, Grand Rapids, MI

When my daughter Eva and I walked through the archives of the Grand Rapids Public museum we were enthralled and drawn to so many beautiful and inspiring objects. Being in the textile design profession I naturally assumed that a textile article would be our object of choice.  Much to my dismay, I am writing about something quite different, the iron lung.

I spent a significant portion of my studies in industrial design, specifically focused on design for the physically challenged. Although I decided not to continue on this path professionally, my intense involvement over a two-year period is one of the most significant times of my life.  In reaching out to this community I met an amazing number of truly inspiring individuals.  One individual in particular, Margaret Pfrommer, fundamentally changed my life.

In our recent exploration of the Public Museum archives, my daughter and I noticed this strange looking piece of equipment.   I was “taken a back” when Gayle informed us that it was an “iron lung”.  I had never seen one before.  Chills ran through me, as we stood and contemplated the reality of being the patient that this was engineered for.  I was actually fighting back tears and chills in that moment, for what I also saw was the teenager, Margaret Pfrommer, not that much older then my daughters.

I first heard Margaret Pfrommer speak at a RESNA (Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America) conference in Washington, DC, in 1981. At that conference I was introduced to the professional world of the physically challenged. I met the engineers, researchers, and designers of solutions for this broad range of products.  I also had the honor to meet Margaret and to invite her to come speak at the University of Michigan.

Margaret was a critical member of the Northwestern University Engineering Team, headed up by Dr. Childress. She was involved and aggressively active in the development and refinements of a number of technologies including the “puff and sip” wheelchair systems.  She also consulted to a variety groups, testified before congressional committees, and was involved in improving home health-care strategies for independent living.  Her passion and devoted commitment was to improve the lives of those like herself.
At the young age of 19, in 1956, she contracted polio, a strain of the poliomyelitis virus.  Within days, Margaret went from being an active young woman to completely bed ridden, all extremities numb.  Her prognosis was bleak; if she lived, she would require life support systems and totally dependent on others for her daily existence.  Her life came to prove that this was far from the truth.  Although confined as a high level quadriplegic to a wheel chair, and in need of daily assistance, she was anything but dependent. Margaret needed the help of a respirator to breath and talk, the only movement she was capable of was the movement of her head.  She used a straw to answer the phone, operate two computers, and manage an extensive interactive electronic file system.  She used a voice command program for composing letters and memos. Making the arrangements for Margaret to visit University of Michigan required a number of challenges, however with her determination, we over came all the hurdles that a high-level quadriplegic needing 24 hour life support requires in making a trip.

When Margaret spoke at the exhibit, she described the experience of having spent some time in an iron lung.  Locked into a horizontal machine that used mechanical ventilation, known as “negative-pressure”.  The thought of being captive to this machine is almost unimaginable.  Margaret was part of a small segment of the population that could be kept alive by the iron lung, but faced with the challenge of living ones life in and out of this continual confinement.  Margaret became part of the development trials for the positive pressure ventilation technologies that used a mouth-piece and lip seal.   This ventilation technology allowed her the ability to be at home and in the wheelchair.

When Margaret spoke, you could not help but be humbled and awed. She was an inexhaustible advocate and pioneer for independence and equality for the physically challenged. When she finished speaking to the audience that day in 1983, life for me shifted at a very fundamental level.  From that point on, I knew that the barriers that seem to present themselves in our lives are barriers only based on our choice and perspective.  Margaret made a choice at a very young age, meeting her, hearing her, and contemplating her challenges was humbling and inspiring.  Nothing stopped Margaret.  Her strength of spirit and intellect transported her to an amazing and active life till her death in October of 1998.  Through out my life when I have felt overwhelmed I have often thought of Margaret, and my perspective, attitude, and choice is easily shifted.

In this past Olympics, Oscar Pistorius, from South Africa, is the athlete to talk about and be inspired by.  This Olympian, has made such an amazing and historical record for all of us. The beauty of technology is when you see it embraced by the higher goals of an inspired spirit and you witness a true liberation.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to remember Margaret Pfrommer.

Anna Z