76-year-old man, paralyzed from polio at 6, is one of the last people with an iron lung: ‘My life is incredible’

Paul Alexander, aged 76, has had a unique life experience. He has spent most of his life relying on an iron lung, making him one of the few remaining individuals in the world who still uses this respirator from 1928. Despite his uncommon situation, he has led a fulfilling life and has always strived for nothing less.

“I am not going to accept from anybody their limitations on my life. Not gonna do it. My life is incredible.”

At the age of six, Paul rushed into his family’s house in a Dallas suburb, telling his mother he felt unwell. Despite being a lively and active child since his birth in 1946, something was obviously amiss.

Paul remembered his mother exclaiming, “Oh no, not my son!”

He obeyed the doctor’s instructions and stayed in bed for the next few days to recover. However, it was evident that the boy had polio and his condition did not improve. Within a week of falling ill, he lost his ability to hold objects, swallow, and breathe.

His parents hurriedly went to the hospital, where he joined numerous other children who were going through the same symptoms.

Polio used to paralyze over 15,000 people before vaccines were created. It is very contagious and can spread without symptoms.

Polio symptoms may consist of tiredness, high body temperature, muscle stiffness, pain, and throwing up. In some rare instances, polio can lead to paralysis and even death.

Paul underwent a medical examination and was declared deceased by one doctor. However, another doctor assessed him and granted him a second opportunity to live.

After the surgery, Paul was immediately put into an iron lung by the second doctor who performed an emergency tracheotomy.

After three days, he woke up to find himself surrounded by rows of children in iron lungs.

”I didn’t know what had happened. I had all kinds of imaginings, like I’d died. I kept asking myself , Is this what death is? Is this a coffin? Or have I gone to some undesirable place?” the Texas native told As It Happens host Carol Off in 2017.

Paul, who had a tracheotomy, was unable to talk, which made the entire situation scarier.

“I tried to move, but I couldn’t move. Not even a finger. I tried to touch something to figure it out, but I never could. So it was pretty strange.”

In the late 1920s, the first machine was created to help people breathe. It was known as the “Drinker respirator” at first. The machine is sealed from the neck down and uses negative pressure to bring air into the patient’s lungs. If there is too much pressure, the air is pushed out and the patient breathes out.

Paul spent a year and a half inside the metal container, recovering from the initial infection. He had company during this time. The year Paul contracted the virus, 1952, was a gloomy year when considering the statistics.

In 1952, around 58,000 individuals, mostly children, caught the virus in the United States. Unfortunately, 3,145 of them lost their lives.

“As far as you can see, rows and rows of iron lungs. Full of children,” he said, according to The Guardian.

Even though some people may have lost hope, Paul’s determination only grew stronger.

Despite hearing doctors say, “He will die today” or “He should not be alive” whenever they walked past him, he was determined to prove them wrong.

And that’s exactly what he did!

After leaving the hospital in 1954, he realized that his life had changed significantly.

“People didn’t like me very much back then,” he said during a video interview in 2021. “I felt like they were uncomfortable around me.”

With the assistance of Mrs. Sullivan, a therapist who came to see him twice a week, his life gradually started getting better. The therapist made an agreement with him that if he could perform the “frog-breathe” technique, which involves trapping air in the mouth by flattening the tongue and opening the throat, without using the iron lung for three minutes, she would get him a puppy.

After putting in a lot of effort, Paul managed to reduce the time he spent in the iron lung within a year.

At the age of 21, he achieved a remarkable feat by becoming the first individual to graduate from a Dallas high school without ever attending classes in person. His outstanding performance earned him honors. Undeterred by multiple college rejections, he persevered and eventually secured admission to Southern Methodist University.

“They said I was too crippled and did not have the vaccination,” he recalled. “Two years of tormenting them, they accepted me on two conditions. One, that I take the polio vaccine, and two that a fraternity would be responsible for me.”

He graduated from Southern Methodist University and later went to law school at the University of Texas at Austin. After passing the bar exam, he became a lawyer in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.

“And I was a pretty damn good one too!”

Despite having a 30-year career in the courtroom, he stayed occupied by writing a book. He managed to type the entire book himself using a pen attached to a stick.

Paul, a 76-year-old man, is thought to be one of the few remaining individuals who still resides in an outdated machine called an iron lung. He relies on this device constantly and has spent a significant portion of his life inside it.

”I have travelled with it —  put it in a truck, took it with me. I’ve gone to college with it, lived in a dorm. That freaked everybody out,” he said.

Paul’s iron lung model has not been produced in 50 years because ventilators have become more advanced and sophisticated.

The polio survivor chooses to stick with his metal chamber, despite the availability of new technology. However, the Dallas attorney had to resort to making a urgent YouTube announcement when the metal lung nearly malfunctioned seven years ago. Luckily, there are still numerous discarded machines across the country, providing a plentiful supply of spare parts. Paul has also received assistance from technology enthusiasts who have a fondness for outdated technology.

”A lot of people who had polio and they’re dead. What did they do with the iron lung? I’ve found them in barns. I found them in garages. I’ve found them in junk shops. Not much, but enough to scrounge [for] parts,” he says.

Paul is currently writing his second book after losing both his parents and older brother.

Paul said he’s been able to live such a fulfilling life because he “never gave up.”

Rotarians are still buzzing after World Polio Day. If a man like Paul Alexander-in an iron lung can earn a law degree and practice law-we can end polio now. Anything is possible!

“I wanted to accomplish the things I was told I couldn’t accomplish,” he said, “and to achieve the dreams I dreamed.”

Since 1979, polio has been successfully eradicated in the United States. Nevertheless, sporadic occurrences of polio caused by the vaccine still arise occasionally, which remains worrisome.

Paul is truly inspiring. Despite facing many challenges, he has created a brave and captivating story that I wish everyone would spread.

Share his story with your loved ones to motivate others. His perseverance proves that the only boundaries are the ones we set for ourselves.

Back to top button

Adblock Detected

Support Free Content We use ads to keep our content free for you. Please allow ads and let sponsors fund your surfing. Thank you!