Paul Alexander, the man stuck in an iron lung for 70 years

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Paul Alexander, the man stuck in an iron lung for 70 years

Paul Alexander contracted polio in 1952 at the age of six and is one of the last people on earth still living in an iron lung.

Monika Verma/TwitterPaul Alexander was placed in an iron lung when he contracted polio when he was just 6 years old – and he’s still there today.

The life of Paul Alexander could easily be described as tragic: a man unable to breathe on his own, paralyzed from the neck down for seven decades because of polio. The only tragic thing about Paul’s story is that it shows how easily some can give up when the going gets tough.

The iron lung is a shell-like, full-body mechanical ventilator. It breathes for you since you normally cannot take in oxygen. As with paralytic polio, you are also paralyzed – and without the support of the iron lung, you will die.

In fact, all doctors believed that Paul Alexander would die in 1952. He has vivid memories of being in the hospital’s polio ward and hearing the doctors talk about him. “He will die today,” they said. “He shouldn’t be alive.”

He wanted to live all the more. So Paul Alexander did something out of the narrowness of his iron lungs very few people are able to do this. He taught himself to breathe differently.

Paul Alexander falls ill with polio and begins his new life in an iron lung

Paul Alexander was hospitalized on a muggy July day in Texas in 1952, The Guardian reported. Swimming pools were closed, as were movie theaters and almost everywhere else. The polio pandemic was raging as people sought shelter on the spot, fearing the new disease with no cure.

Alexander suddenly felt sick and went into the house. His mother knew; he already looked like death. She called the hospital and the staff told her there was no space. It was best to just try to recover at home, and some people did.

However, after five days, Alexander lost all motor functions. His ability to breathe was also slowly failing him.

His mother took him to the emergency room. The doctors said there was nothing they could do. They put him on a stretcher and left him in a hallway. But a doctor hurrying by saw him and – believing the boy might still have a chance – brought Paul Alexander into surgery for a tracheostomy.

He woke up in an iron lung surrounded by a sea of ​​other children trapped in the giant ventilators. He couldn’t speak because of his surgery. Over the months, he tried to communicate with other kids through facial expressions, but “every time I made a friend, they died,” Alexander recalled.

But he didn’t die. Alexander just kept practicing a new breathing technique. Doctors sent him home with his iron lungs still believing he would die there. Instead, the boy gained weight. Muscle memory meant breathing was easier, and after a while he could spend an hour outside the iron lung—then two.

At his physical therapist’s urging, Alexander practiced trapping air in his throat and trained his muscles to push the air past his vocal cords and into his lungs. It’s sometimes called “frog breathing,” and if he could do it for three minutes, his therapist promised she’d buy him a puppy.

It took him a year to get to three minutes, but he didn’t stop there. Alexander wanted to play outside in the sun with his new puppy – whom he named Ginger.

The Man in the Iron Lung pursues his education

Paul Alexander Younger

Gizmodo/YouTube Paul enjoys life despite his crippling polio.

Alexander made friends when he was discharged from the hospital and out of the iron lung for a time, and some afternoons they pushed him around the neighborhood in his wheelchair. During the day, however, these friends were all busy doing what he desperately wanted to do: go to school.

His mother had already taught him the basics of reading, but the schools hadn’t allowed him to take classes from home. Eventually they gave in, and Paul quickly caught up, regaining the time he lost in the hospital. His father constructed a pen attached to a stick that Alexander could hold in his mouth to write.

Time passed, months turned into years – and Paul Alexander graduated from high school with almost straight A’s. He was now able to spend many hours in a wheelchair instead of in an iron lung. The friends who pushed him around the neighborhood now took him to restaurants, bars and movie theaters.

He applied to Southern Methodist University but was turned down solely because of his disability. But, as with anything that turned out to be difficult, Alexander did not give up. He eventually convinced them to let him participate – which they did on only two conditions. Alexander would need to get the newly developed polio vaccine and a helper to get to class.

Alexander still lived at home, but that was about to change. Eventually he transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, moving into a dorm and hiring a janitor to assist with physical chores and hygiene.

He graduated in 1978 and earned a postgraduate law degree in 1984. Far from done, Alexander landed a job as a legal terminology teacher at a business school while studying for his bar exam. He passed this two years later.

He then practiced law in Dallas and Fort Worth for decades. He would appear in court in a converted wheelchair that supported his paralyzed body. Meanwhile, he performed a modified form of breathing that allowed him to be outside of the iron lung.

Alexander even made headlines in November 1980 – because he had dared to run the presidential election of all things.

Paul Alexander Polio

Big Dreams/YouTubePaul in his legal years.

Paul Alexander today

Today, at the age of 75, Paul Alexander relies almost exclusively on his iron lungs to breathe. “It’s exhausting,” he said of his learned way of frog breathing. “People think I’m chewing gum. I developed it into an art.”

He always thought that polio would come back, especially since parents have been going without vaccinations lately. But it was the 2020 pandemic that threatened Alexander’s current livelihood. If he were to contract COVID-19, it would surely be a sad ending for a man who has managed to overcome so many obstacles.

Now Alexander has survived both his parents and his brother. He even outlived his original iron lung. When air leaked, he posted a video on YouTube asking for help. A local engineer found another to refurbish.

He was in love too. While at college he met a girl named Claire and they became engaged. Unfortunately, an interfering mother intervened, refusing to let the wedding go ahead or even allow Alexander to continue talking to her daughter. “It took years to heal from that,” Alexander said.

He depends on technology to live, but also for things like us. An Amazon Echo sits next to his iron lung. What is it mainly used for? “Rock ‘n’ roll,” he said.

Alexander has written an aptly named book Three Minutes for a Dog: My Life in an Iron Lung. It took him over eight years to write it, typing on a keyboard with his pen tool or sometimes dictating it to a friend. He is now working on a second book and continues to enjoy life – reading, writing and eating his favorite foods: sushi and fried chicken.

Although he needs almost constant grooming now, there seems to be no stopping Paul Alexander.

“I have some big dreams,” he said. “I will not accept the limitations of my life from anyone. won’t do it My life is amazing.”


Next, read how Elvis convinced America to get the polio vaccine. Then let these 33 feel-good stories from history restore your faith in humanity.

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