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'I lived in an iron lung for seven years'

By John Prestwich for CNN

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John Prestwich: "For the last half century my life has literally depended on technology."

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(CNN) -- John Prestwich was diagnosed with polio at the age of 17 in 1955, which made him paralyzed from the chin down. He has spent 50 years on an artificial ventilator, including seven in an iron lung. Here is his story:

For the last half century my life has literally depended on technology. In 1955, on my 17th birthday, I became totally and permanently paralyzed from my chin down, and entirely dependent on a ventilator to keep me alive. The cause was polio, which I caught the year before the vaccine became available.

Over the last 50 years I have become all too familiar with various types of ventilators. When I first became ill I was not only put into an iron lung, I was also given a tracheostomy (hole in my throat). I guess that for safety purposes I was given both means of ventilation to keep me alive.

Iron lungs work on negative pressure. In other words the iron lung is sealed and attached to bellows, which lower the air pressure inside the iron lung to create a negative pressure. This negative pressure causes the chest wall to expand and air is drawn into the lungs through the mouth and nose. When the negative pressure is released, the chest wall "collapses" and one breathes out. Both the depth and rate of respiration can be adjusted to suit the individual.

A tracheostomy, on the other hand, supplies positive pressure via the windpipe. After two years my tracheostomy was closed but I still used -- and do to this day -- positive pressure but via a mouthpiece. This is essential to keep me breathing when the iron lung is opened for nursing.

I was in an iron lung for seven years but for the last 43 years I have used a smaller version of negative pressure ventilation in the form of a cuirass shell, which is airtight and fits over my chest, and is held in place by straps.

However, there are still occasions when I need to use an iron lung. For instance, when I go into hospital for surgery or if I get a cold or chest infection. As I am totally unable to cough, such infections could be fatal for me. On these occasions I go into a "tipping and turning" iron lung -- a more recent development of the original. This iron lung can be tipped head down and rotated through 180 degrees so that I am lying face down. A physio then climbs on top of the now "upside-down" iron lung and through portholes pummels my back to help bring up the secretions in my lungs.

After 16 years in hospital, I got married in 1971 and moved into my own home. Further technological developments have given me a certain amount of independence. For instance, when I first became disabled I couldn't even ring an alarm bell if I needed help but now I can operate many items of equipment in my home. These include the telephone, lights, curtains, television, video and even a computer. Having no movement whatsoever I control an environmental system (called "Possum") solely by whistling into a microphone.

Another great advantage for me in the march of technology has been the development of 12-volt batteries. In the 70s when I was away from a mains electricity supply, a 12-volt battery would keep my respirator operating for just 20 minutes. Such a battery will now keep me breathing for five hours.

Because of this, in 1999 I had a new chair/bed (on which I live 24 hours of the day) made to my specifications. This chair/bed not only houses a 12-volt battery to operate my ventilator, it has two 24-volt batteries to motorize it.

Best of all, by using a sip/puff switch, I am able to drive it! I can tell you, it was a momentous and liberating occasion on the day, when after 44 years of total immobility, I was able to move myself independently from A to B for the very first time!

-- Further information about John can be found on his Web siteexternal link.

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