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

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Paul Alexander, 76, is one of the few people left in the world who uses an iron lung, a device from 1928, to help him breathe. Even with this challenge, he has led a full life and refuses to let anyone limit him. He says, “My life is incredible.”

At age six, Paul felt unwell and told his mother. Born in 1946 in a Dallas suburb, he had been a healthy and lively child up to that point. He remembers his mother’s worry, saying, “Oh my God, not my son.”

After staying in bed for a few days, it became clear that Paul had polio. Within a week, he couldn’t grip, swallow, or breathe. His worried parents quickly took him to the hospital, where many other children were facing similar problems.

Before there was a vaccine, polio paralyzed over 15,000 people. This highly contagious disease can spread even if the infected person doesn’t show signs. Polio symptoms are fatigue, fever, muscle pain, stiffness, and vomiting. In some cases, it can also lead to paralysis and even death.

Doctors initially thought Paul had died, but a second doctor decided to give him another chance. This doctor performed an urgent surgery called a tracheotomy. After the surgery, Paul was put into an iron lung.

Three days later, he woke up and saw rows of children in similar iron lungs. Confused and scared, he wondered if he had died or was in some sort of unpleasant place. “Is this what death is? Is this a coffin?” he later shared these thoughts in a 2017 interview with Carol Off from “As It Happens”.

Paul couldn’t speak due to his tracheotomy, which made everything even scarier.

He said,“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.”

The machine he was in, made in the late 1920s, was the first of its kind to help people breathe. Often called the “Drinker respirator”, it covers the body from the neck down. It works by creating a pressure that helps air go into the patient’s lungs and then pushes it out, helping the patient breathe.

Paul was in the iron lung for 18 months recovering from the virus. The year he got sick, 1952, was especially bad for the disease. In the U.S., about 58,000 people, mostly kids, got the virus. Sadly, 3,145 of them passed away.

Paul described seeing “rows and rows of iron lungs. Full of children,” as reported by The Guardian.

Even though things were tough, Paul didn’t give up. He heard doctors say things like “He’s going to die today” or “He shouldn’t be alive” when they walked by him. But he wanted to show them he could make it.

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

After leaving the hospital in 1954, Paul realized that his life wasn’t the same.

“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.”

However, things started to change for Paul with the support of a therapist named Mrs. Sullivan. She visited him twice a week and helped him rebuild his life. She promised Paul a puppy if he could manage to “frog-breathe” without the iron lung for three minutes. This breathing method involves trapping air in your mouth using your tongue and opening your throat.

Though it was challenging, Paul’s efforts paid off. In a year’s time, he began to spend more hours outside the iron lung.

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

At 21, Paul achieved a remarkable feat. He graduated from a Dallas high school with honors without ever going to class in person. After that, he aimed for college. Though initially rejected by many colleges, Southern Methodist University eventually accepted him.

Paul remembered, “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 didn’t stop there. Paul graduated from Southern Methodist University, went to law school at the University of Texas at Austin, and became a lawyer in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Paul proudly said, “And I was a pretty damn good one too!”

Even after working as a lawyer for 30 years, Paul kept himself active by writing a book. He typed it using a pen tied to a stick.

76-year-old man who paralyzed from polio at 6, is one of the last people with an iron lung—‘My life is incredible’
R Scott James / Shutterstock.com

Gizmodo reports that Paul might be one of the last people still living in an iron lung. At 76, he depends on this old device all the time and has lived most of his life in 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,” Paul said.

The kind of iron lung Paul uses hasn’t been made in over 50 years. Today’s ventilators are much more modern and efficient.

Paul, who survived polio, still chooses his old iron lung over modern technology. But there was a crisis seven years ago when his iron lung nearly broke. He had to make an urgent call for help on YouTube. Luckily, old machines and parts can still be found across the country, since many are left abandoned. Plus, there are fans of vintage technology who have been happy to help him.

76-year-old man who paralyzed from polio at 6, is one of the last people with an iron lung—‘My life is incredible’
“Iron Lung” victims at Baltimore’s Children’s Hospital

Paul said, ”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.”

Despite the challenges, Paul, who has now outlived his family, is busy writing his second book!

Paul believes his fulfilling life is due to his never-give-up attitude.

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

Though polio has been mostly eliminated from the U.S. since 1979, there are still occasional cases linked to the vaccine which are worrying.

Paul’s story is truly inspirational. He’s faced incredible challenges but has shown that the only real limits are the ones we set for ourselves. It’s a tale worth sharing, so please tell his story to inspire those around you.