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Saturday nights remind me of the thing I hate most about Brazil. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are rubbish collection days so that’s when I have to fill a bag of used toilet paper and take it out to the street.

That’s right. Used toilet paper. The problem being that Brazilian toilets, unlike their users, are so temperamental that even the sniff of a piece of toilet paper will lead to them refusing to accept anything at all and that’s not a situation anyone wants to find themselves.

So tonight was the night I find myself cursing the land of sun and samba on the way to the front gate to drop off my sack of soiled tissue. But there is one resident of Sao Paulo who, if she could, would jump at the opportunity to carry a bag of poo stained paper anywhere and that’s Eliana Zagui.

For the last 36 years Eliana has been confined to a bed having suffered from infant paralysis following a late diagnosis of polio. Despite what many would describe as a debilitating condition, Eliana has managed in 38 years without the use of her limbs what I have failed to achieve in 40 years of full mobility, she has written a book – with her mouth.

Lungs of steel

Eliana’s book

Sharing a room with fellow polio victim, Paulo Henrique Machado, to whom she dedicated the book, Eliana has not only learned to read and write but has studied English and Italian and paints as well. In an interview with Veja magazine, Eliana explains that painting is where she opens herself, puts all her emotions, rage anger and acheivements.

She had not been vaccinated against polio as a child because her parents visit to the local vaccination clinic had coincided with fever and flu, a precaution which is now known to have no scientific basis. In early January 1976, after a few days of fever, Eliana’s parents took an uncharacteristically quiet infant from their home in Guariba, 337km from Sao Paulo city, to a better equipped hospital in Jaboticabal. After spending the night at the hospital, doctors recommended they travel another 60km to Ribeirao Preto where she was diagnosed with polio and rushed to Hospital das Clinicas in Sao Paulo city.

In her book she describes the first few hours following her arrival at the Hospital das Clinicas as ‘an intense battle. A war of doctors against the clock’. She had already lost all movement from the neck down and the priority was to prevent the paralysis from reaching her lungs. Her parents were told it was unlikely she would survive the night and that they should go home. Within two hour her respiratory system failed for the second time and at dawn as her exausted parents waited at the side of the road for a bus home, Eliana was fitted into her first iron lung. Her clothes and possessions were burned in an attempt to erase her past.


Eliana young and older

Sadly Eliana now has little contact with her family due to the distances involved. It was the nurse, Josephine Aparecida Saccani nicknamed the ‘Thin’, who arranged the transport to Sao Paulo who, 25 years later, tracked down Eliana and inspired the autobiography. She began researching her past and, contacting her father, received a nine page letter explaining his version of the story. From that point she began working in ernest and was eventually contacted by a publisher who had heard her story.

The book’s title, ‘Pulmão de Aço’ is inspired by the iron lung, a machine which enables those with paraalysis to breathe. For Eliana the iron lung did not work and a traecheotomy had to be performed to enable her to breathe.

Despite a limited print run, Eliana has already heard stories of those who have been inspired by her story. I, for one, will count my blessings the next time I carry a bag of poo out to the street and I look forward to reading the English edition of ‘Lungs of Steel’.

One of Eliana's paintings

A painting by Eliana

(images from http://www.vizinhosdeutero.com.br/2012/04/pulmao-de-aco-por-eliana-zagui.html)