Paul Alexander, 76 years old, has had an extraordinary life. He’s used an iron lung for the better part of his life and may be the last person on Earth to do so; the device dates back to 1928.
He’s had a very complete life despite his odd upbringing, and he’s never settled for less.
No one has the right to put restrictions on my life, and I refuse to comply with them. Not going to happen. My life is amazing.
Paul came home to his mother in the Dallas, Texas suburb where he grew up and told her he didn’t feel well when he was only six years old. Paul had been a healthy, happy, and energetic kid since he was born in 1946, but something was obviously amiss today.
Oh my God, not my boy,” Paul’s mother cried out, according to Paul’s recollection.
Doctor’s directions were followed and he spent the following several days in bed resting, but it was obvious the youngster had polio and he wasn’t getting better. After feeling ill for less than a week, he lost the ability to hold anything in his stomach, swallow, or breathe.
After much deliberation, his parents took him to the emergency room, where he joined the throngs of other youngsters suffering from the same illness.
More than 15,000 individuals were paralysed by polio before vaccinations were available. Extremely contagious poliovirus may spread even when its host shows no signs of illness.
Polio causes weakness, exhaustion, stiffness, discomfort in the muscles, and vomiting. Paralysis and death are possible, albeit less common, consequences of polio.
After one physician proclaimed Paul dead, another looked at him and decided to give him a second opportunity.
The second doctor performed an emergency tracheotomy and then put Paul in an iron lung to help him breathe.
When he awoke three days later, he was one of several kids in an iron lung enclosure.
I was completely in the dark. My thoughts kept taking me to a place where I was dead. I kept wondering whether this was really death. Do I see a coffin here? The native Texan asked As It Happens anchor Carol Off in 2017: “Or have I gone to some undesirable place?”
R. Scott James / Thinkstock
Paul, who had a tracheotomy as well, was unable to communicate, adding to the tension
I attempted to move, but was unable to. Not a single one of them. I kept reaching out, hoping to feel the answer, but it was never there. That was very unusual.
The first person was ventilated with this gadget in the 1920s. Hermetically sealed from the neck down, the “Drinker respirator” generates negative pressure inside the chamber, which sucks air into the patient’s lungs. If it causes an increase in atmospheric pressure, the patient will be compelled to exhale.
Paul stayed in the metal container for 18 months as he recovered from the original illness. Moreover, he had company. Looking at the numbers, 1952, the year Paul contracted the illness, was a particularly bad year.
In the United States in 1952, the virus infected over 58,000 individuals, mostly children. Sadly, 3,145 of them passed away.
“Iron lungs in neat rows as far as the eye can see. Full of kids, he reportedly told The Guardian.
The fact that some people lost their desire to life simply served to strengthen Paul’s.
He wanted to disprove the medical professionals who said things like, “He’s going to die today” and “He shouldn’t be alive” every time they walked by.
The Children’s Hospital of Baltimore now has a television set for “Iron Lung” patients due to the generosity of the Baltimore Rotary Club. It’s likely that this set was the first of its kind to be used to help polio patients enjoy life again. Patients may see daily broadcasts thanks to mirrors implanted in their lungs.
Yes, that’s what he did.
After being released from the hospital in 1954, he discovered that his life had changed significantly.
“People didn’t like me very much back then,” he remarked in a 2021 video interview. It seemed awkward for them to be in my presence.
Mrs. Sullivan, a therapist, came to see him twice a week, and she helped him tremendously. His therapist promised him a dog if he could “frog-breathe,” in which one traps air in one’s mouth by flattening one’s tongue and opening one’s throat, for three minutes without the use of an iron lung.
It took a lot of effort, but Paul was able to spend less and less time in the iron lung over the course of a year.
At age 21, he made history by receiving a high school diploma from a Dallas institution, honours included, despite never having set foot inside a classroom. He placed his eyes on further education and, although facing initial rejection, eventually gained admission to Southern Methodist University.
“They said I was too crippled and did not have the vaccination,” he reflected. After two years of taunting me, they finally accepted me, but with two stipulations. That I get the polio shot, and that I pledge allegiance to a fraternity and accept their responsibility for me.
After finishing up at Southern Methodist University, he headed to UT Austin to study law. He took the bar exam and is now practising law in the Fort Worth area.
To which I enthusiastically added, “And I was a pretty damn good one too!”
After 30 years on the bench, he decided to keep himself occupied by creating a book, which he typed all by himself using a pen on a stick.
Paul is reportedly one of the last humans on the planet to reside in the almost extinct technology. The 76-year-old has spent the most of his life inside a can due to being restricted to his ancient iron lung.
I packed it in a truck and drove across country with it. I took it to college and used it in a residence hall. “That spooked the whole room,” he admitted.
There hasn’t been a new iron lung made for Paul in half a century since modern ventilators are so much better.
Despite the availability of updated technology, the polio survivor nevertheless opts for his metal box. When the metal lung almost failed seven years ago, the Dallas lawyer had to make a frantic statement on YouTube.
Fortunately, numerous replacement parts are available since there are still many abandoned devices around the nation. Paul has also benefited from the assistance of hobbyists who like restoring vintage equipment.
Many victims of polio have passed away. I’m curious as to what become of the metal lung. I’ve located them in haylofts. The garages are where I discovered them. I’ve located these at thrift stores. He adds, “I don’t have much, but I can scrape together some spare parts.”
Paul, who has already outlived his parents and elder brother, is now writing his second book.
Paul attributes his successful life to the fact that he “never gave up.”
I wanted to do the things others told me I couldn’t do, and realise the aspirations I had, he added.
The United States has not had a case of polio since 1979. However, there are still occasional worries about polio due to vaccine-caused illnesses.
Paul is an incredible role model. He’s made something of his life despite enormous obstacles, and his narrative is inspiring and worth hearing.
His tenacity demonstrates that one’s only limitations are those one imposes on oneself. In order to encourage others, please tell his story to everyone you know.