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An Iron-Lunged Christmas Gift to Us All



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The story of the life of Martha Mason and her family is one of a love of life, even with — or maybe especially because of — great pain and sacrifice and loss. The New York Times Magazine explains:

In 1948, polio came for the children of Willard and Euphra Mason of Lattimore, N.C. First it took 13-year-old Gaston, killing him in days. His sister, Martha, grief-stricken, terrified, knew on the day of her brother’s funeral that her aching muscles meant she was sick, too. She decided she would not go to bed: she would outrun the disease. But she could fight sleep for only so long, and she woke to her weeping mother mopping her forehead. At a hospital an hour away, she heard her mother say, when told to go home, that she had no home to go to. Instead, Mrs. Mason got a job at the hospital. When her daughter was transferred to another facility, she got a job there too.

An iron lung looks like an enormous metal coffin or a 19th-century rocket ship: only its occupant’s head is left outside, a tight seal around the neck. A series of pumps inflate and deflate the lungs. For Martha Mason, age 11, now a quadriplegic, the iron lung was a rocket ship home. After a year in the hospital, doctors sent her back to Lattimore in a machine paid for by the March of Dimes and told her parents to make her last year alive a happy one.

One day she noticed a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” on a bookshelf and read it. “Take away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed,’ and the harm is taken away,” it said. “Sometimes I pretended that my brother had left ‘Meditations’ there for me,” she wrote later. She lived that year, and the next. Her high-school teachers brought lessons to her every afternoon; her parents moved with her to the campus of a local junior college, and then to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, where she attended class by intercom and majored in English. She graduated first in all three classes. Flat on her back, she’d outrun the disease after all.

But there is more. About how she literally celebrated life — with dinner parties. About her dream and her hope and her great friend, technology and ingenuity. Life can and should be a great friend to life. It was in the life of Martha Mason. R.I.P.



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