Polio Led to the Invention of the Ventilator

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How a Polio Outbreak in Copenhagen Led to the Invention of the Ventilator

by Bradley M. Wertheim/Smithsonianmag.com

More patients than ventilators. Understaffed hospitals. A snowballing pandemic. Seven decades before COVID-19, a similar crisis strained the city of Copenhagen. In August 1952, the Blegdam Hospital was unprepared and overwhelmed. A 12-year-old victim, Vivi Ebert, lay paralyzed before anesthesiologist Bjørn Ibsen, “gasping for air” and “drowning in her own secretions.” Seven years after liberation from Nazi occupation, a new shadow darkened the streets: the poliovirus. With his hands, a rubber bag, and a curved metal tube, Ibsen reset the boundary between life and death and taught the world how to breathe.

“We were very afraid,” remembers Ibsen’s daughter Birgitte Willumsen of the 1952 outbreak, “everyone actually knew somebody” affected by polio. Waves of young people with fever, headache, upset stomach and stiff neck heralded the arrival of the “summer plague” in cities throughout the United States and Europe. Masquerading as a common stomach virus, the infection established itself in the gut before spreading to the brain and spinal cord. The clinical picture ranged from a self-limited stomach bug to paralysis, shock and asphyxia. Some recovered, but lasting disability, or death, was typical. At the time, the best way to treat respiratory complications of polio was with the “iron lung,” ...read more:



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