‘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.”