How Dr Bird saved millions of lives

Caroline happened upon this fascinating article about the man who was really the forefather of all the ventilators we use in hospitals today.  Until about 100 years ago, if a patient was too weak to breathe on their own or their lungs were too damaged to take up enough oxygen, they had very little chance of surviving.  In the early part 91-ironlungsingle1of the 20th century the ‘iron lung’ was invented.  This was a huge metal box that the patient would lie in, with just their head sticking out.  The box was attached to a bellows or pump system that altered the pressure inside the box and ensured the lungs would inflate even if the patient’s muscles were completely paralysed.  The use of the iron lung saved thousands of lives in the polio outbreaks across the world in the 1950s and 1960s, but as you can see from the photo they were cumbersome and didn’t make it very easy to look after patients’ needs.  The hero of our story, Dr Forrest Bird (I know, fabulous name) wanted to do better…

During the war, Dr Bird was part of the US Air Corps and found a device in a crashed German plane that controlled the flow of oxygen to the pilot; he realised that this allowed German planes to fly higher than the Allied aircraft.  After much tinkering, he produced a prototype of the Bird Respirator out of three baking tins and a doorknob!  Although basic, it allowed air and oxygen to be blown into a person’s lungs to support their breathing.  Further developments and more tinkering led to a device suitable for use in hospitals, and then later the development of the first ventilator for supporting seriously ill infants.  The Babybird ventilator is thought to be responsible for deaths due to breathing problems in premature babies dropping from 70% to below 10% – incredible!

Although the ventilators we use to treat breathing problems nowadays have moved on a IPPB-Birdmark7-1964bit, physiotherapists still use the Bird in hospitals to help clear mucus from the airways.  It’s a bit of a surprising feeling at first, having air blown very fast into your lungs, but for patients who struggle to take a deep breath it can feel fantastic.  So if you ever see a physiotherapist wheeling one of these little devices past you in a hospital, you’ll be able to think of Dr Forrest Bird and his baking tins!

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