Polio and pioneering intensive care
Epidemics of poliomyelitis
occurred across Europe in the years following the Second World War.
Many young and active people died or were disabled. Nancy Riach
- Scotland's swimming champion who died at the age of 20 - was amongst
Polio could cause temporary paralysis. When the
chest muscles and diaphragm were paralysed, patients' breathing
became feeble and they could die from lack of oxygen. So, artificial
respirators were developed the so-called iron lungs.
In Copenhagen, where there was a very serious
epidemic, Professor Lassen realised that some patients put on respirators
were drowning in their own saliva because their throat muscles were
paralysed and they could not swallow. During 1953, Lassen organised
teams of medical students to hand pump oxygen for polio patients
suffering from paralysis of both the chest and throat. The students
imitated normal breathing
they pumped oxygen in to the patient's
lungs with pauses. In this way the lives of paralysed patients could
Dr Peter McKenzie of Glasgow learnt of the Danes'
success. After a visit to Copenhagen, Dr McKenzie arranged for mechanical
equipment to be ordered which would do the work done by hand in
Denmark. The first intermittent positive pressure ventilator in
Britain was built by Aga (the manufacturers of cooking ranges) and
installed at Belvidere Hospital in 1955. This equipment incorporated
a cuff which prevented saliva draining into the lungs.
The method of treatment and nursing attention required by these
patients provided one of the practical experiences from which present-day
intensive care units trace their origins.
The introduction of the Salk and Sabin vaccines
from 1956 onwards largely eliminated polio as an epidemic disease.
Return to the 1940 - 1950s
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