Moving beyond an iron lung: The dreams and passions of Mark O'Brien

The 2012 movie Photo: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

SAN DIEGO, July 10, 2013 —  Few would likely find themselves unaffected by the experience of viewing the 2012 movie, “The Sessions,” which portrays the life of poet, journalist and polio survivor Mark O’Brien.

O’Brien’s polio left him severely paralyzed from the neck down. Because of this, he lived most of his life inside a life-saving iron lung, able only to escape its confines a few hours a day.

What made “The Sessions” so compelling and unforgettable was O’Brien’s insistence on maintaining his independence, struggling to create a life beyond the massive machine which sustained him. Having once been institutionalized because of the need for the machine to help him breathe, O’Brien was determined to live independently, and eventually succeeded.

While he was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, a venue which unlocked his creativity and mental gifts and the opportunity to express them, O’Brien tasted freedom. 

Actor John Hawkes, who portrayed O’Brien in the movie, said in a 2012 interview published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:  “It was important to Mark (O’Brien) to get the word to people that it was actually cheaper for us as taxpayers for him to live independently than for him to live in an institution.”



It was a major accomplishment for O’Brien to attend university classes, given the extent of his disability which left him almost completely incapacitated.

Living independently, attending university classes, and writing poetry and articles were a spectacular victory over his disabling condition, but he longed for more.

As part of this longing, O’Brien sought genuine intimacy.  He saw himself as a complete man despite his overall disability, and wanted to fulfill that part of his life.

With the friendship and counsel of his local priest, O’Brien struggled with the religious beliefs he carried with him from childhood.  Later, following many intellectual and spiritual conversations, he sought education and guidance from a sex therapist, brilliantly portrayed in the movie by Helen Hunt, to unlock the mysteries of his physical longings.

His ability to see himself as a complete man, though living in an iron lung almost continuously and for most of his life, was nothing short of miraculous.

O’Brien’s story has likely enlightened millions of people first through his writing, and then through the movie, “The Sessions.”  His courage and determination to live an independent and fulfilling life, despite overwhelming odds, provides a role model for those struggling with a disability, and a lesson in resilience.

Debunking the stereotype of a man trapped within an iron lung and unable to move without assistance, except for neck and head mobility, O’Brien exemplified the possibilities which exist for those overcoming disabilities, encouraging them to live with independence, pride, and integrity.

Further, he demonstrated the importance of looking beyond a disability and recognizing the human being within.

In O’Brien’s later years, he moved to the University of California and continued his education.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that:  “his (O’Brien’s) 600-pound iron lung was hoisted by a crane through the space where his dorm window would have been—at the school, with the motto, ‘Let There Be Light.’”

There is no doubt about the incredibly bright light Mark O’Brien shone upon the world around him.  It may be that he has taught us the importance of looking beyond the iron lung and directly into the human spirit.

Until next time, enjoy the ride in good health!

Laurie Edwards-Tate, MS, is a health care provider of over 30 years. As a featured “Communities” columnist since 2011, LifeCycles with Laurie Edwards-Tate emphasizes healthy aging and maintaining independence, while delighting and informing its readers.  Laurie is a recognized expert in home and community-based, long-term care services, and is also an educator.

In addition to writing for “Communities,” Laurie is the President and CEO of her firm, At Your Home Familycare, which serves persons of all ages who are disabled and infirm with a variety of non-medical, in-home care and concierge services.

Copyright © 2013 by At Your Home Familycare

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Laurie Edwards-Tate

Laurie Edwards-Tate, MS, President and Founder of At Your Home Familycare in San Diego, California, was among the first to recognize the growing need for services allowing individuals to remain independent created by the aging of America including the Baby Boomer generation, now being called the “Silver Tsunami.” It is the Baby Boomers who are rapidly redefining what aging and growing older means and looks like in America today.

Now celebrating its 28th year in business, AYHF is among San Diego County’s Top  Women-Owned Businesses and Fastest Growing Businesses, and enjoys a reputation for upholding the highest possible standards among its employees and its emphasis on customer service.  Edwards-Tate is a valued contributor to the public dialogue on current issues and challenges in the home care industry, and serves in leadership roles on the Home Care Aide Association of America Advisory Board and Private Duty Home Care Association Advisory Board, as well as the Home Care Aide Steering Committee of the California Association for Health Services at Home.

Edwards-Tate is frequently interviewed in the media on healthy aging, caregiving, and health care topics. 

 Follow Laurie and AYHF  at; on Facebook at, and Twitter at @AYHFamilycare

Contact Laurie Edwards-Tate


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