Paul Alexander hasn’t breathed on his own since 1952. Today he’s 76 years old and one of the last living people still using an iron lung to stay alive. It is a vivid reminder of a horrific period in history when the polio virus swept the entire world. This infectious disease kills thousands of children each year, leaving more with lifelong disabilities. The whole nation shook with fear of death, paralysis and isolation.
But this story is not about the disease, but about the man who defeated it with willpower and determination. This is the story of Paul Alexander, nicknamed “The Man in the Iron Lung”.
Who is Paul Alexander?
In the summer of 1952, Paul is a happy, active six-year-old in Dallas, Texas, living an ordinary life like any other boy. But it was also the year in which the country had its single largest outbreak of polio. Paul was injured, and within six days, his life had changed completely. He went from a healthy, running, laughing, and active toddler to being unable to speak, swallow, cough, or breathe in the course of one week. This was the beginning of his life at the mercy of a ventilator, the Iron Lung. No one thought that Paul would live so long. But Paul exceeded everyone’s expectations of the disease. He had dreams and he didn’t let disability stand in his way! He studied, became a lawyer, and an author, with a story that can inspire millions who are defeated by their weaknesses every day.
The polio horror of the 1950s
A visual argument for vaccines, in five tweets:— Rachel Clarke (@doctor_oxford) May 14, 2019
1/ A ward of polio victims, incarcerated inside “iron lungs” in 1950s America. Many are children, their lungs paralysed, unable to breathe unaided. Thanks to vaccination, no-one has caught polio in the UK since the 1980s. pic.twitter.com/KCqAmRETMy
Today, due to COVID-19, we are all familiar with the feeling of how the world can stand still in the face of a deadly virus. Therefore, we can easily recognize the horror that gripped the world in the 1950s during the outbreak of polio. This was before the vaccine was invented. Families shut their windows and doors in fear. The neighborhoods were silent and empty without the noise of children playing. Church services have been suspended. Amusement parks, stadiums, movie theaters, bars and shopping malls are deserted or closed. During the Terror of the 1940s and 1950s, polio was responsible for approximately 15,000 cases of paralysis in the United States each year. Children were especially susceptible to this disease. In 1952, the year Paul contracted polio, there were about 58,000 cases nationwide, of which more than 21,000 were primarily children with disabilities. It was reported that 3,145 died. In New York, thousands of cats and dogs were killed, as people thought they carried disease. It’s like “the black plague,” Paul remembers.
Paul’s battle with polio
After doctors made an incision in his trachea, his injury improved, but he found himself inside a metal cylinder, like hundreds of other children in the hospital. Paul remembers rows and rows of iron lungs with little heads popping out, trying to make friends or connect with other faces. Many were unsuccessful, while others recovered and left. But Paul’s polio paralyzed him from the neck down, not letting him move or breathe. He spent 18 harrowing months in the hospital, as doctors tried to teach him to breathe on his own, which is called “frog breathing.” Finally, with the help of a physical therapist, he overcame his fear of breathing and learned to “swallow air”—breathing like a fish. Learn to breathe on your own.
“It’s exhausting,” says Paul, and “People think I’m chewing gum. I’ve developed it into an art.” But he knew that this was the only path to the future. Slowly, he could live his life out of the machine for a few hours each day while confined to a wheelchair. But at night he had to go back to his loyal metal friend to sleep. Today, he is 70 years old and he can’t do that anymore. Locked inside the iron machine 24/7. But his fight still goes on.
“I never gave up, and I won’t,” says Paul.
The iron lung is his longest friend.
Paul is paralyzed from the neck down and cannot use his lungs to breathe on his own. The iron lung helps him breathe by using negative pressure to take air into his lungs. This was invented in 1928 by Philip Drinker, a medical engineer, and Louis Shaw, a physiologist at Harvard University. The hospital’s polio ward was filled with gasping children with horror, and he decided to build something that would give them a chance at life. The iron lung uses a simple mechanism. To help the patient inhale, air is pumped out of the barbell, helping the chest to inflate. When air is pumped back into the device, the patient exhales. It was only meant to be used for 1-2 weeks for the body to recover.
Paul calls his iron lung “the old iron horse.” Its yellow color will remind you of the kitchen appliances of the 1950s, and is a testament to a bygone time. Today, less than 10 people use iron lungs. Paul prefers his faithful gods more than modern respirators that can cut a hole in his throat. Today, iron lungs are not produced anymore, and spare parts are rarely found. No one thought that people using these machines would last so long. But he did.
Paul lived a full life.
“The man with the iron will leaves the iron lung to vote.” Paul Alexander made headlines in a 1980 Austin newspaper article. Living inside an iron lung didn’t stop Paul from living his life to the fullest. Although Paul is still called “the man with the iron lung,” his life also tells the story of a man with an iron will. He studied, graduated from school, received a postgraduate degree, passed his law exams, and became a successful lawyer.
Doctors didn’t expect Paul to live that long, but he proved the universe wrong. When Paul learned to breathe on his own, it enabled him to stay away from his machine for hours each day. Paul studied entirely from home and graduated at the top of his class at the age of 21. He fell in love, suffered heartbreak, had boyfriends, and had fun in restaurants, bars, strip clubs, restaurants, and even went to the movies.
Paul earned degrees and had a career.
Paul had ambition and a thirst for learning. He applied to Southern Methodist University in Dallas but was rejected due to his disability. Paul remembers how he fought for two years until they accepted him on the condition that he get a polio vaccine and they found someone to help him go to classes.
He fought for his dreams and for his right to an education. He transferred to the University of Texas and started living on his own. After graduating in 1978, he went on to study law for his graduate degree. He taught shorthand court legal terminology at a trade school in Austin for a while, but his dream was to become a lawyer, and he made it happen. In 1986, he passed his bar exams and became a lawyer. Now, he can breathe independently for hours and thus can attend classes whenever possible.
Paul wrote and published his memoir, Three Minutes to a Dog.
He did not stop at being a lawyer. Paul wrote his diary using a plastic stick and a pen to write his story on the keyboard entirely with his mouth. He also dictated his words to Norman Brown, his former nurse and friend. It took him eight years. He wanted to inspire people. Paul says that no matter where you live, what your past is, and what challenges you face, you can do anything if you’re willing to put in the hard work. Paul says he has fought polio every single day of his life and is not about to give up. It becomes painful and tiring, but he will continue to fight all his life. Here we wish Paul the best! I hope he continues to be the global inspiration that he already is!
Did you know that Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, contracted polio in 1921? He lost the use of his legs. Virologist Jonas Salk invented the vaccine in 1953, and the United States was officially declared polio-free in 1979 after a long and successful nationwide vaccination campaign.