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 has never settled for anything less than a full and meaningful life, despite his odd upbringing.
“I am not going to accept from anybody their limitations on my life. Not gonna do it. My life is incredible.”
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 active kid from his 1946 birth, but recently he had started acting strangely.
“Oh my God, not my son,” Paul recalled his mother saying.
He spent the next few days in bed as directed by the doctor, but it was obvious that the youngster still had polio and wasn’t improving.
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 long line of other youngsters with the same symptoms.
More than 15,000 people were disabled by polio before immunizations were available.
Extremely contagious poliovirus can spread even when its host shows no signs of illness.
A polio infection might cause you to feel exhausted, feverish, stiff, and in pain in your muscles, and perhaps throw up. Paralysis and death can result from polio in extremely rare circumstances.
After one physician proclaimed Paul dead, another looked at him and decided to give him a second opportunity.
A second physician stepped in to conduct an emergency tracheotomy, and after Paul recovered from surgery, he was put in an iron lung.
Three days later, when he awoke, he was one of several kids in a row, all of them wearing metal chest casts.
”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 as well, was unable to communicate, adding to the tension.
“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 first human was ventilated using this gadget in the 1920s. Hermetically sealed from the neck down, the “Drinker respirator” generates negative pressure within the chamber, which sucks air into the patient’s lungs.
If it causes overpressure, the patient will exhale because air will be forcibly removed from the lungs.
Paul stayed in the metal container for 18 months as he recovered from the original infection. It wasn’t just him, either.
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 people, mostly children. Sadly, 3,145 of them passed away.
“As far as you can see, rows and rows of iron lungs. Full of children,” he said, according to The Guardian.
Others may have lost hope, but for Paul, it served as fuel.
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 thanks to the generosity of the Baltimore Rotary Club.
It’s likely that this set was utilized for the first time to help polio patients pass the time. Patients can view daily broadcasts thanks to mirrors implanted in their lungs.
In fact, he did just that!
In 1954, he was released from the hospital, but he soon realized that nothing about his life was 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.”
But his life started to get better after he started seeing Mrs. Sullivan, a therapist who came to see him twice a week.
If he could “frog-breathe,” in which air is trapped in the mouth by flattening the tongue and opening the neck, for three minutes without the iron lung, his therapist had promised to get him a puppy.
Paul worked hard, and after a year, he was able to spend less and less time in the iron lung.
At age 21, he made history by receiving a high school diploma from a Dallas institution, honors included, despite never having set foot inside a classroom.
Following this, he placed his sights on higher education and, despite initial rejection, eventually gained 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.”
After finishing his undergraduate degree at Southern Methodist University, he enrolled in the University of Texas School of Law. He took the bar exam and is now practicing law in the Fort Worth area.
“And I was a pretty damn good one too!”
After 30 years of practicing law, he found a new way to keep himself occupied by penning a book using a pen on a stick.
A Gizmodo article claims that Paul is one of the few persons still using the nearly antiquated technology.
The 76-year-old man has been confined to his ancient iron lung around the clock for the majority of his life.
”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.
Because modern ventilators are so much more complex, no new iron lungs like Paul’s have been made in half a century.
Despite the availability of updated technology, the polio survivor nevertheless opts for his metal box.
When the metal lung nearly failed seven years ago, the Dallas lawyer had to make a desperate announcement on YouTube.
Thankfully, there are still plenty of abandoned machines scattered across the country, so there should be no shortage of replacement components.
Paul has also gotten aid from people who enjoy tinkering with vintage gadgets.
”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, who lost his mother and father and his older brother, is writing another novel.
Paul claims he’s had a fruitful existence because he “never gave up.”
“I wanted to accomplish the things I was told I couldn’t accomplish,” he said, “and to achieve the dreams I dreamed.”
Since 1979, the United States has made significant progress toward eliminating polio. Nonetheless, there are still worries about the occasional resurgence of polio from vaccines.
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Paul is an incredible role model. I hope that everyone who reads this will be inspired by his bravery and the intriguing story he has constructed for himself.
His tenacity demonstrates that one’s only limitations are those one imposes upon oneself.
Please SHARE his story with all your Friends and Family to inspire others!