Not Even an Iron Lung Could Stop Her Preaching
Sometimes it takes courage just to keep living. This is the story of one who had such courage. Her name was Laurel Nisbet.
BORN in 1912 in Los Angeles, Laurel became a vibrant young woman who loved life and her family. Having a husband and two children to take care of was an easy task for her under normal circumstances, but in 1948 her love of life was tested almost beyond comprehension. She was stricken with the deadly polio virus.
After suffering flulike symptoms for some days, she eventually became unable to move. Her husband took her to the county hospital. There she was among many who had contracted polio. Fear engulfed her as overcrowded conditions necessitated that she lie on the floor in the hallway and wait for an iron lung. Every breath was an enormous effort. When an iron lung was finally available, she was relieved to be placed in it. Now she could catch that precious breath of life nearly taken from her!
Iron lungs were invented to help people whose chest muscles have been paralyzed by polio. Originally it was thought that this would be a temporary measure while a patient’s muscles recovered, enabling him to breathe on his own. But to Laurel’s surprise and to the horror of the world, these iron breathing machines became the permanent homes of many victims. Laurel survived flat on her back for 37 years inside the confines of one. She holds the world record for the longest surviving polio patient in an iron lung.
Was this her only claim to fame? Absolutely not. Laurel was a young woman in her 30’s when she was placed in the lung. She had two children to raise and a husband to care for. At first she was sad beyond despair. Then, after about a day of self-pity, she decided to make the best of her situation. Eventually, her husband brought her home, and she began to rebuild her life. She learned to manage her home, right from the iron lung.
Now, you must picture what this was like. Only her head protruded from the respirator. A plastic collar and a metal bar, which held the collar tight to her collarbone, were used to keep the cylinder airtight. A bellows below the tank changed the air pressure inside the tank. About 15 times a minute, the bellows, acting as a pump, withdrew air from the tank. This caused the patient’s chest to rise as air entered through the nose or mouth. When the bellows contracted and air was forced back into the tank, pressure was exerted on the chest, and the patient exhaled. So you can see why the collar had to be airtight since changes of air pressure made the iron lung work effectively. Laurel could move her head, but that was all. She was totally paralyzed from the neck down. She viewed her world from a mirror mounted above her respirator that reflected another mirror placed across the room on the opposite wall. This made it possible for her to see her front door and anyone who approached it.
Enter Jehovah’s Witnesses
One day she had a visitor, Del Kuring, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She marched right into Laurel’s living room and began to teach her the wonderful truths of the Bible. Laurel had respect for God’s Word and listened with an open mind and an open heart. A Bible study was started, which led to her dedication to God in 1965 as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now she had even more to live for. One day she would walk again on the earth and enjoy the Paradise that God intended mankind to have! What joy she felt, too, as her daughter Kay embraced her new faith.
You may ask, ‘What about her baptism?’ Well, there couldn’t be one. Having no ability to breathe on her own, immersion in water was impossible. She was never able to go to a Kingdom Hall. She never attended an assembly. She never saw her daughter get baptized. But she accomplished more in her service to Jehovah than many Christians who are not handicapped.
You see, Laurel was a preacher of the good news. During her 37 year confinement, she was able to help some 17 people come to an accurate knowledge of the Bible. How did she do it? Of course, she could not go from door to door as most Witnesses have the privilege of doing. But she could witness to her many attendants. I had the privilege of being such a one.
I was a nursing-school student in 1972 and started to work for her as an attendant. Laurel and I had time at the end of my shift to talk and get to know each other. One day she said: “Now, I would like you to read to me.” As I agreed, she instructed me to pick up a little blue book entitled The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. I asked her where to start, and she simply said, “Start at chapter 1.” Thus a Bible study was started, and I too became a dedicated Witness of Jehovah.
Laurel’s respirator was visible through the large picture window at the front of her house. She lived on a busy street, so anyone in the town of La Crescenta who passed by could see the respirator. This created a lot of sympathy and curiosity in passersby, and strangers would frequently stop in to meet her. She was always delighted to meet people and developed many friendships this way, and she would witness to these people. Her bold witnessing for Jehovah and her hope for the future impressed people and gave a good witness for Jehovah’s name.
Laurel slept very little. It was difficult to become tired like the rest of us, since she could not move. The noise and constant movement of the bellows under the respirator kept her awake. What did she do with these hours? She talked to her heavenly Father, communicating to the fullest in heartfelt prayer. I’m sure she prayed for strength and endurance, but more often than not, she would pray for her Christian brothers and sisters. She had great compassion for others and thanked Jehovah daily for her blessings.
When a traveling representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to her area, he would always visit Laurel. Many of these men would say that after being with Laurel, they were the ones that had been upbuilt! That was her way. She was always positive and joyful and looked for every opportunity to witness for the truth.
She had many harrowing experiences, too numerous to tell. Once she had to have an emergency appendectomy, and the van came from the county hospital to pick her up. Because her appendix had burst, she was quickly rolled into the van and rushed to the hospital, where the doctor had to perform this surgery without anesthetic. You see in the 1950’s, they did not know how to give general anesthetic to an iron-lung patient.
Many Surgeries but No Blood
She endured cancer, major surgeries, and chronic skin disorders. It was very frustrating for her when she needed to scratch and couldn’t and had to have her attendant do it for her. Even though her muscles were paralyzed, she had feeling over her entire body. This served her well, as it kept her from getting bedsores. She was very conscientious about her skin care. It took four of us to turn her and give her a complete bath once a week. This ordeal was trying for Laurel, but she managed it like everything else in her life.
These times with her were fun and pleasurable in spite of the difficulty of the task. As we would turn the collar up around her neck to last another week, making this contraption as airtight as possible, she would grit her teeth and say: “Oh, the Devil’s own invention!” Yes, Laurel knew where to put the blame for such a terrible condition. It began with Satan, who induced the first humans to turn their backs on Jehovah, bringing sin, sickness, and death to mankind.
Laurel may have been paralyzed physically but obviously not spiritually. She used each opportunity to teach people about her hope of Paradise. Even near the end of her life, when she was facing emergency surgery, she was able to take a stand for righteousness. It was 1985, and Laurel was 72 years old. As her surgery approached, her doctor came in to tell her that they could not do the surgery without blood. Her daughter Kay explained her mother’s wishes to abstain from blood because by this time Laurel was so weak she could hardly talk. She had tubes down her throat and could barely whisper. Her whole body was poisoned from a bowel obstruction, and she looked almost dead.
But the doctor said that he needed to hear this stand on blood from Laurel. We whispered in her ear: “Laurel, you need to tell the doctor yourself about the blood.” All of a sudden, to my astonishment, her eyes opened wide, her voice got loud, and she spoke to the doctor about her stand on blood. She cited scriptures, explaining that Jehovah’s Witnesses feel that to accept a blood transfusion would be a sin against God. I’ll never forget what she said next. “Doctor, if you save my life and I wake up and find that you have violated my body, I’ll wish I was dead, and you would have worked for nothing.” At this, the doctor was not only convinced of her stand but amazed at her strength and agreed to abide by her wishes.
Laurel underwent a four-hour-long operation with some success. After the surgery, the doctors removed her from the lung for the first time in 37 years and placed her on a hospital bed. They attached her to a modern respirator using her tracheostomy. This had been her worst fear. Now, because the modern respirator was attached to the tracheostomy tube in her throat, she was unable to speak. She was panic-stricken as she felt that she was not getting enough air. She died three days later, on August 17, 1985, from complications related to the surgery.
I remember her final words to me, probably the last words she spoke, just before she was put under anesthetic. She said: “Chris, don’t ever leave me.” Now as I look forward to the end of this old system of things and the coming resurrection, I dream of the day when I can hug my friend Laurel Nisbet and say: “I’m here. I never left you.”—As told by Christine Tabery.