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Looking Up And Seeing Stars

Just over a week ago Dianne Odell, at the age of 61, died because of a power failure to her home in Jackson, Tennessee. While family members frantically tried to start an emergency generator, her father said, “We did everything we could do but we couldn’t keep her breathing. Dianne had gotten a lot weaker over the past several months and she just didn’t have the strength to keep going.”

Dianne Odell had spent the previous 58 years with a two meter machine completely enveloping her body to keep her alive. This machine, a 340-kilogram iron lung, was a cylindrical chamber with a seal at the neck that completely enveloped her body with only her head exposed. At the age of three, Dianne was struck down with the debilitating disease polio. Her life was dependent on a machine developed in 1928 that produced positive and negative pressure on her lungs to induce breathing. Because of a spinal deformity from the polio that made it impossible for Odell to wear a more modern, portable, breathing apparatus she had to use the older machine.

Her unique deformity meant that she had to spend her life lying on her back, looking up at the ceiling. She was believed to be one of the last, if not the last, survivor of polio to live with the support of an iron lung. She lived with the support and care of her family, with her mother and father, who were over eighty years old, refusing to have her institutionalised.

In many ways Dianne Odell was unlucky. Just three years after she contracted polio a vaccine was developed that effectively wiped out the crippling disease. She was also unlucky because a spinal deformity arising from the polio made it impossible for Odell to wear more modern, portable breathing apparatus that generally replaced the iron lungs in the 1950s. She was also unlucky because so few people suffered from her condition that little attention was paid to alleviating it.

In one crucial way, however, Dianne Odell was very lucky. Dianne did not have the distractions and clutter perspective that occlude my and many others understanding of the world. Nor did she have any illusions as to her circumstances. She was in a stark position and confronted with conditions that many of us, and most definitely I, would find intolerable.

Dianne Odell was lucky because her life was stripped back to a simple decision, how to respond to her circumstances and create the most meaningful life possible. The life she made is one worthy of respect.

The ability to take challenging circumstances and transform them into positive life experiences is a unique one. However, almost every day you and I are confronted with decisions and situations where we can choose to react or respond creatively and consciously. The Naked Ape is dedicated to exploring and celebrating our collective achievements despite our very, very human limitations.

Dianne Odell was one of the unique individuals who, despite tremendous challenges, was determined to rise above them and live a full-life. Dr. Walton Harrison, Odell’s paediatrician just after she was diagnosed with polio, said that she had beaten the odds to live as long as she had. “I didn’t think she would last through puberty because her lung capacity was so limited,” he said. She earned a diploma from Jackson High School and an honorary degree from Freed-Hardeman College.

Dianne loved to talk with people and had a mirror installed so that she could make eye contact with visitors who entered her room. She loved having visitors, and particularly enjoyed encouraging younger children with disabilities to go for their dreams. In a 2001 interview with the Associated Press, she said she wanted to show children, especially those with physical disabilities, that they should never give up. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you see someone do the same thing,” she said.

She also wrote a book, the work of years. In an interview with the STAR Centre, Dianne said, “I have had two dreams in my life. The ability to “write without the help of others” and “to write my own letters and perhaps books.” She continues, “My dream of writing a book without help has come true. I had started a children’s book over 12 years ago. The computer I had then gave me nothing but frustration. It must have been three years before I realized that the method of voice recognition that I was using would never work for my voice. It broke my heart to think of all the wasted money people had contributed for my benefit.”

It would not be until another decade before Dianne could purchase a voice activated computer of suitable quality to write her children’s book, “Blinky Less Light”. The story goes:

“Not so long ago, in a distant corner of the heavens, there was a tiny, almost invisible star. His name was Blinky. His parents loved him very much, although they knew Blinky was different. He was very small and gave off only a dim light, almost like that of a firefly,”

Eventually, the small star manages to become a wishing star, despite tremendous obstacles, and eventually grants a wish that saves a young child’s life.

For her 60th birthday a celebratory gala was held to raise funds for her healthcare. More than 1,100 people attended, including the actor David Keith and former Vice President Al Gore. Odell was rolled onto an ambulance for her ride to the gala wearing a sequined gown designed by a local seamstress with a tiara adorning her head. When she was wheeled into the room, with an American flag draped over the machine, she received a standing ovation. Some of the people who attended knew her well, but others had heard about her determination and spirit and wanted to meet her.

As Francis Bacon remarked, quoting from a speech by the Stoic philosopher Seneca, “The good things which belong to prosperity are to be wished, but the good things that belong to adversity are to be admired.”

On hearing of Dianne’s response to life’s adversity, it is impossible not to admire her spirit and character and marvel at the love she gave and received.


Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1991, “Flow: The psychology of optimal experience”, page 200.
Photographs used in this post are from

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