Dianne Odell never let her poor health get in the way of a fulfilling life.
Born in Jackson, Tenn., Odell was only 3 years old when doctors diagnosed her with “bulbo-spinal” polio. At the time, no vaccine was available, and the medical profession believed her only chance of survival would involve being confined to an iron lung, a 7-foot-long metal tube that forced air in and out of her lungs. While most polio patients switched from iron lungs to ventilators, Odell was unable to to do so because of a spinal deformity.
So for 58 years, Odell lived inside a 750 lb. machine, breathing in and out with the assistance of technology. Her life was spent on her back, with only her head exposed. She made eye contact with visitors using an angled mirror and operated the television by breathing into a blow tube.
But Odell didn’t just exist in that cylindrical chamber. With the help of her family and home health care aides, she graduated with honors from Jackson High School. Odell then took several courses in psychology at Freed Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn. Although she didn’t graduate, the college awarded her an honorary degree in 1987.
Later in life, Odell became politically active. She volunteered for local campaigns, and even made phone calls to voters, urging them to support several state senators. Using a voice-activated computer program, Odell also penned “Blinky,” a children’s book about a wishing star, and began writing her autobiography. For her “Sassy 60th birthday,” Odell was transported inside the iron lung to The Southern Hotel in Jackson, Tenn., where hundreds of guests honored her with a 9-foot birthday cake.
Life in an iron lung costs about $60,000/year, yet her mother, Geneva, and father, Freeman, refused to institutionalize her. Keeping Odell at home, however, was a financial hardship for the aging couple. To help the family, the West Tennessee Healthcare Foundation and the Campbell Street Church of Christ established the Dianne Odell Fund. In 2001, more than 1,000 people, including former Vice President Al Gore and actor David Keith, attended a gala to raise money for her care. James Keach, producer and director of “Walk the Line,” and his wife, actress Jane Seymour, befriended Odell as well, and helped raise money for her medical expenses.
Odell died on May 28 after a thunderstorm knocked out the power to her home and shut down the iron lung. When the family’s emergency generator did not start, her father manually pumped the machine. Weakened by small strokes she suffered in previous months, Odell was unable to keep breathing, and resuscitation efforts failed to revive her. She was 61.