how do you go to the bathroom in an iron lung

How Do You Go to the Bathroom in An Iron Lung

For individuals with severe respiratory muscle weakness, particularly those how do you go to the bathroom in an iron lung in the pre-ventilator era, managing bodily functions presented a significant challenge. The iron lung, a negative pressure ventilator, enclosed the user’s body from the neck down, creating a cycle of pressurized air that facilitated breathing. While this life-saving device ensured survival, it necessitated innovative solutions for daily tasks, including toileting.

Pre-Planning and Communication

Prior to delving into specific methods, it’s crucial to emphasize the importance of clear communication with your healthcare team. A doctor or respiratory therapist will provide personalized guidance based on your specific needs and the iron lung model you utilize. They will also train you and your caregiver on safe and effective toileting procedures.

Planning is another key element. Ensure all necessary supplies are within easy reach from your position in the iron lung. This might include:

  • A bedpan or urinal specifically designed for iron lung use (consult a medical supply store)
  • Disposable liners for the bedpan or urinal
  • Moist wipes for hygiene
  • Gloves for caregivers
  • A designated and easily accessible wastebasket

Maneuvering and Positioning

Assistance is essential for toileting in an iron lung. A trusted caregiver, such as a family member, nurse, or home health aide, will be your partner in this process. Here’s a general breakdown of the steps involved:

  1. Sealing the Iron Lung: The caregiver will initiate a pressure cycle in the iron lung, creating a seal around your neck. This allows for a brief interruption of ventilation to facilitate maneuvering.

  2. Transferring to a Transfer Board: With the iron lung sealed, the caregiver will carefully assist you in shifting onto a transfer board. This specialized board bridges the gap between the iron lung and a raised toilet seat or commode.

  3. Positioning over the Bedpan or Urinal: Once on the transfer board, the caregiver will position you comfortably over a bedpan or urinal placed on the raised toilet seat or commode. The bedpan or urinal should be the appropriate size and design for use within the confines of the iron lung.

  4. Maintaining Seal and Privacy: While you use the bedpan or urinal, the caregiver will maintain a light seal around your neck to prevent air leaks. A privacy curtain can be used around the iron lung during this process to ensure dignity.

  5. Cleaning and Repositioning: Following use, the caregiver will assist you in cleaning and disposing of waste materials properly. They will then carefully guide you back onto the transfer board and then back into the iron lung.

Remember: Throughout this process, communication is key. Voice any discomfort or concerns you may have to your caregiver.

Alternative Methods and Considerations

For some individuals, using a transfer board might not be feasible. In such cases, alternative methods can be explored with your healthcare team. These might include:

  • Indwelling Catheters: A thin tube can be inserted into the bladder to continuously drain urine. This option requires careful monitoring and regular catheter replacement by a healthcare professional.
  • External Catheters: For males, an external catheter can be placed around the penis to collect urine in a collection bag.

Bowel movements in an iron lung pose a greater challenge. Depending on your individual situation, your doctor might recommend:

  • A scheduled bowel program: This involves using stool softeners and laxatives to regulate bowel movements and minimize the frequency of toileting.
  • Suppositories: These glycerin-based suppositories can stimulate bowel movements without requiring transfer.

Maintaining Skin Health and Comfort

Due to the constant contact with the iron lung seal, skin irritation is a potential concern. To minimize this risk:

  • Maintain a clean and dry skin surface: Regular cleaning with gentle wipes and application of barrier creams will help protect your skin.
  • Inspect your skin regularly: Look for signs of irritation or pressure sores. If you notice any concerns, inform your healthcare team immediately.

Comfort is paramount. Ensure your caregiver positions you comfortably within the iron lung and on the transfer board. Pillows or foam wedges can be used for added support.

Psychological Well-Being and Adaptation

Living with an iron lung presents unique challenges. The inability to independently manage toileting can be frustrating and emotionally taxing. Here are some strategies to cope:

  • Focus on what you can control: While you might not be able to control the dependence on assistance, you can control your perspective. Focus on your achievements and celebrate your independence in other areas of your life.
  • Connect with others: There are online communities and support groups for individuals who have used iron lungs or continue to do so. Sharing your experiences and connecting with others who understand your challenges can be a tremendous source of strength.
  • Seek professional support: If you find yourself struggling emotionally, don’t hesitate to seek professional counseling or therapy. A therapist can equip you with coping mechanisms and help you navigate the emotional aspects of your condition.

Advancements in Respiratory Care

The iron lung played a pivotal role in saving countless lives during the peak of polio outbreaks. However, it’s important to acknowledge the significant advancements made in respiratory technology. Modern positive pressure ventilators are smaller, quieter, and offer greater mobility for users. These advancements have allowed many individuals who would have historically relied on iron lungs to live more independent lives.


Living with an iron lung requires a significant amount of adaptation and resilience. While toileting presents a unique set of challenges, with careful planning, assistance from a healthcare team, and the right tools, it can be managed effectively. Remember, you are not alone. There are resources available to support you both physically and emotionally.

Living with an iron lung is a testament to the human spirit’s ability to overcome adversity. By focusing on your well-being, maintaining open communication with your healthcare team, and embracing available resources, you can live a fulfilling and meaningful life.

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