‘Bob’, the boy in the iron lung [photos]

It was his unfailing cheerfulness that astounded hospital staff and that his brother Walt remembers 70 years later.

It was his unfailing cheerfulness that astounded hospital staff and that his brother Walt remembers 70 years later.

In its day it was cutting-edge technology. And it really did work. But at such a high price.

The cure: the iron lung allowed a polio patient to breathe by mechanical aid. The price: the total loss of mobility but for the head which remained outside this metal coffin. Only the patient’s mind was free to roam and to come, if it could, to terms with this lifesaving but paralyzing rescue from inevitable death.

So it was for Bob Punnett of Bowen Island who was just 18 when struck down by poliomyelitus (infantile paralysis) in June 1938. We know his full name now, thanks to brother Walt Punnett of Duncan; back then, to the readers of the Vancouver Province, he was “Bob, the boy in the iron lung.”

After eight weeks in the green respirator he was asked by reporter Jack Stepler what it was like to live in an iron-and-glass coffin. “Just about as comfortable as living under normal circumstances,” he replied, then added with a twinkle in his dark eyes, “Only you don’t get around much.” All the while he was following the movements of nurses and visitors in a square-foot mirror suspended above his head. “I spend most of my time watching people passing in the hall… Sometimes the nurses push the machine around so I can look out the window. Then I can call to people outside” (on 12th Avenue).

He didn’t read much other than letters because of his weakened eyesight, and because someone had to hold a book and turn the pages for him.

Punnett was Vancouver General Hospital’s first patient to use the iron lung which had been donated anonymously 10 months before. His mind was alert but his answers came slowly because he had to allow the machine to inhale and exhale for him, 16 times a minute. Although this is slower than normal breathing it allowed him to breathe more deeply.

Four times a day nurses would stop the machine so he could exercise his lung muscles. At the time of his interview he was in good spirits and his doctors said that he was much improved but they couldn’t say how long he would be confined.

Hospital staff and family made every effort to make his first Christmas in hospital as joyous as possible, with cards, presents and a decorated tree. At his own request he’d invited a single guest, whose identity was kept secret, to dinner which he expected to be able to enjoy from outside the respirator. By this time his muscles, weakened by polio and atrophied from disuse, required frequent massages and he was able to move only his hands and feet slightly, and he had to be hand-fed.

But his courage and his cheerfulness — it’s the latter that brother Walt recalls so vividly — never did fail him.

He was still in hospital when he, family, friends and nurses celebrated his 21st birthday. Among cards and letters from well-wishers was one from Vancouver City Mayor G.C. Miller. The greatest highlight of the day wasn’t the cake with the 21 candles, or the wrist watch from his mother, but the fact that, for 45 minutes, he was allowed out of the lung — his 100th respite and his longest to date.

A year later, he was able to leave it for 18 hours a day, he was taking a correspondence course in electricity (he ultimately passed two courses, both with honours) and showing an interest in photography,

By 1945 Vancouver was suffering 40-80 new cases of infantile paralysis a year, and the Kinsmen organized a Hallowe’en Pennies for Paralysis Drive. A front-page photo in the Sunday Sun showed a smiling Bob Punnett, still in his respirator, his home for the past seven years, while noting that doctors had tested him in a new type of iron lung two weeks before.

Almost four years later, in January 1949, the saga of B.C.’s longest surviving polio patient came to a close, the Sun reporting: “A brave man died in Vancouver Sunday, after spending 10 1/2 years in an iron lung in General Hospital”. Recalled were his “unfailing good humour and courage in what he had known for years was a hopeless battle to regain his health.”

After developing bronchial pneumonia he was treated with penicillin and oxygen but died early Sunday morning. It was a sad ending, one that came a full decade after doctors had originally thought that he’d be able to leave the iron lung for good. Ten years of almost complete immobility, with only nursing staff and visitors, his mirror and a radio for companionship. And his never-failing good humour.

Concluded a Sun reporter: “Bob remained cheerful. Most times only his head was visible. His dark hair was kept brushed back. His cheeks were ruddy, his grin infectious, his eyes alive. He talked easily, chuckling a lot. All the time, one could hear the iron lung ‘breathing.’

“Bob Punnett ‘stuck it out’ for 10 1/2 years. It couldn’t have been easy.”


Just Posted

Sierra Acton, regional district director for Shawnigan Lake. (file photo)
New parkland in Shawnigan creating connections

Used to created parking for the popular Masons Beach Park

By protesting uninvited in First Nations’ territories, conservationists are acting in a neocolonial or paternalistic manner, says Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis. Photo by Heather Thomson
A closer look: do Vancouver Island First Nations support the war in the woods?

First Nations/environmentalist old growth alliance uneasy, if it exists at all

Chris Wilkinson
Chris Wilkinson column: This could be the worst thing done to you during the pandemic

As a result, all of us will contend with more ‘scarcity’ thinking and mindset.

The Crofton trailer park home where the bodies of two people were found. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Mom still waiting for answers after daughter and her fiance found dead in Crofton

Pair discovered dead in their Crofton home in May identified as Rachel Gardner and Paul Jenkins

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

Chilliwack secondary school’s principal is apologizing after a quote equating graduation with the end of slavery in the U.S. was included in the 2020-2021 yearbook. (Screenshot from submitted SnapChat)
B.C. student’s yearbook quote equates grad to end of slavery; principal cites editing error

Black former student ‘disgusted’ as CSS principal apologizes for what is called an editing error

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross. (Photo by Peter Versteege)
BC Liberal leadership candidate condemns ‘senseless violence’ of Okanagan church fires

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross says reconciliation isn’t about revenge for past tragedies

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A coroner’s inquest will be taking place at the Capitol Theatre in Port Alberni for the next week. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Teen B.C. mom who died following police custody recalled as ‘friend to many’

Police sent Jocelyn George to hospital after intoxication had gone ‘beyond the realm’ of normal detox

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2020, file photo, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. Nassib on Monday, June 21, 2021, became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib announced the news on Instagram, saying he was not doing it for the attention but because “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.” (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay

More than a dozen NFL players have come out as gay after their careers were over

Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel speaks to the Sacred Hearts Catholic Church burning down early Monday morning, June 21, 2021. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
Penticton band chief condemns suspicious burning of 2 Catholic churches

Both Catholic church fires are deemed suspicious, says RCMP

COVID-19 daily cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day moving average to June 17, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections drop to 90 on Sunday, 45 Monday

Pandemic spread dwindles as 77% of adults receive vaccine

Emergency vehicles are parked outside of the Wintergreen Apartments on Fourth Avenue. (SUSAN QUINN / Alberni Valley News)
Port Alberni RCMP investigate stabbing on Fourth Avenue

Two men were found with ‘significant’ injuries near Wintergreen Apartments

Most Read