On a hot summer day in 1952, Paul Alexander of Texas was not feeling well. His neck and head hurt and he was running a high fever. Within days, the six-year-old boy could not move, speak or even swallow: he had contracted polio.
Today, though almost completely paralyzed from the neck down, Alexander—who is now 75 years old—is alive and well, thanks to the large steel ventilator that has enabled him to breathe for nearly seven decades,reports Andrew Court of the New York Post.He is one of the last people to use an iron lung, a device that was a common sight in polio wards at the peak of the epidemic.
Instead of being imprisoned by the medical device that keeps him alive, the man in the iron lung has used it as a springboard to thrive. He graduated with honors from high school, then received a scholarship to Southern Methodist University after first being rejected by the school. He attended classes in a wheelchair for the brief moments when he could escape the iron lung, reports Linda Rodriguez McRobbie of the Guardian in a 2020 article.
Alexander graduated in 1984 with a Juris Doctor from the University of Texas at Austin Law School, reports Linda Hasco of PennLive.com, and actually worked as a lawyer.
“And I was a damn good one too,” he says in the video.
In 2020, Alexander wrote a book about his experience, Three Minutes for a Dog: My Life in an Iron Lung. It took him five years to do it, writing every word himself with a pen attached to a stick he held in his mouth.
“I wanted to accomplish the things I was told I couldn’t accomplish and to achieve the dreams I dreamed,” he says in the video.
Polio—short for poliomyelitis—was a mid-20th-century scourge that sickened tens of thousands of people and killed thousands each year. The infectious diseasecaused by the poliovirus attacks the central nervous system, resulting in some form of paralysis in about 0.5 percent of cases. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd United Statespresident, lost the use of his legs when he contracted polio in 1921. Health officials declared the U.S. polio-free in 1979 following a long campaign to inoculate Americans after virologistJonas Salk invented the vaccine in 1953.
The polio plague sickened tens of thousands of people and killed thousands each year during the mid-20th-century. At the peak of the scourge, iron lungs were an absolute necessity for those who suffered paralysis of the diaphragm. The medical device allowed them to breathe by creating negative pressure through a vacuum, which forced the lungs to expand.
Today, Alexander is thought to be one of only two people still using an iron lung, reports the Guardian. According to Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, 1,200 people in the U.S. relied on tank respirators in 1959. By 2004, only 39 individuals used them.
Alexander admits in the Guardian article that adjusting to life in the iron lung was extremely difficult. He says he felt rejected by others and had to learn how to “frog” breathe by using his throat muscles to push air into his lungs when he was outside of the ventilator.
“I didn’t want to die, so I continued to fight,” he says in the video.
Today, Alexander continues his fight—not just for himself, but to let others know they are not limited by their circumstances, he proclaims in the video with Mitch Summers.
“My story is an example of why your past or even your disability does not have to define your future,” he says, adding, “No matter where you’re from or what your past is, or the challenges you could be facing. You can truly do anything. You just have to set your mind to it, and work hard.”
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David Kindy | | READ MORE
David Kindy is a former daily correspondent forSmithsonian. He is also ajournalist, freelance writer and book reviewer who lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He writes about history, culture and other topics for Air & Space, Military History, World War II, Vietnam, Aviation History, Providence Journal and other publications and websites.
Today, at the age of 77, Paul Alexander is the longest iron lung patient ever. Paul has been using his negative-pressure ventilator for 70 years, and currently spends most of his day inside the machine in his house.Is anyone still alive with an iron lung? ›
Today it's two. Martha Lillard and Paul Alexander are the last known Americans still using the giant metal tanks to help them breathe. According to the Guardian, the last person in the United Kingdom that used an iron lung died in 2017.How does a person in an iron lung go to the bathroom? ›
How the patients would use the bathroom? The front part of the iron lung where the patient's head comes out attaches to the “tin can” and can be unbuckled and pulled out, thus exposing the patient's body on the bed. He is lifted up by a nurse and a bedpan is slid under him.What is the longest time someone has been on the iron lung? ›
The longest period for a person to make daily use of a negative-pressure ventilator (or "iron lung") is 70 years, set by Paul Alexander of Texas, USA, who was placed in an iron lung in July 1952 after being paralyzed by polio.How long did polio patients stay in iron lung? ›
The iron lung was intended to be used for two weeks at most, to give the body a chance to recover. Over time, the claustrophobic iron lung became emblematic of the devastating effects of polio. Only the sickest patients ended up in one; if they made it out, a lifetime of disability was likely to follow.How do you eat in an iron lung? ›
You can eat in the iron lung because your head is outside but the rest of your body is inside, although since you are flat on your back you really need to be careful when you swallow; you have to swallow in rhythm with the machine because it's pulling your diaphragm in and then pushing it out again.How many polio victims are still in iron lungs? ›
Only 10 Americans were left using an iron lung in 2014, The Post said. Paul Alexander is now just one of two Americans that remain on the machine, and he wants to share his story, the Guardian reports.Is an iron lung uncomfortable? ›
Going into an iron lung was a bewildering process for patients, many of whom were delirious and in extreme pain. Life in an iron lung was difficult for both patient and carers.What does a body look like in an iron lung? ›
The iron lung is typically a large horizontal cylinder, in which a person is laid, with their head protruding from a hole in the end of the cylinder, so that their full head (down to their voice box) is outside the cylinder, exposed to ambient air, and the rest of their body sealed inside the cylinder, where air ...What replaced iron lungs? ›
Barlow Respiratory Hospital keeps one iron lung on display as a reminder of those days. Now, modern mechanical ventilators, positive pressure ventilation systems, are the standard of care and work by blowing air into a patient's airways and lungs using a breathing tube.
After reaching the final point of interest, as the player attempts to reach the camera controls, the creature breaches the submarine, ending the game and returning the player to the title screen.Who was the last iron lung survivors? ›
Paul Richard Alexander (born January 10, 1946) is an American lawyer from Dallas and paralytic polio survivor. He is the last person living in an iron lung after he contracted polio in 1952 at the age of six.How long does it take to beat iron lung? ›
When focusing on the main objectives, Iron Lung is about 1 Hours in length. If you're a gamer that strives to see all aspects of the game, you are likely to spend around 1½ Hours to obtain 100% completion.Why did people with polio need iron lungs? ›
No device is more associated with polio than the tank respirator, better known as the iron lung. Physicians who treated people in the acute, early stage of polio saw that many patients were unable to breathe when the virus's action paralyzed muscle groups in the chest.How did people get polio? ›
It enters the body through the mouth. It spreads through: Contact with the feces (poop) of an infected person. Droplets from a sneeze or cough of an infected person (less common)Who is the oldest polio survivor? ›
Marguerite Scarry, who is still going strong at the age of 99, is currently the oldest living polio survivor in the world. Scarry's story was brought to our attention when her great-niece, Patricia Spencer, sent us an email and included newspaper clippings about Scarry's miraculous story.Who was the last survivor of iron lung? ›
Paul Richard Alexander (born January 10, 1946) is an American lawyer from Dallas and paralytic polio survivor. He is the last person living in an iron lung after he contracted polio in 1952 at the age of six.Why don t we use iron lungs anymore? ›
During the height of the polio epidemic in the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s, rows of iron lungs filled hospital wards to treat thousands of polio patients, most of them children. The reason we don't see iron lungs anymore is because of polio vaccines, which were first developed in the 1950s.What has replaced the iron lung? ›
But for patients dependent on them to breathe, the old iron lungs were gradually replaced with modern ventilators. Ventilators are used today in intensive care units and emergency wards rather than for polio victims. The patient no longer needs to be encased neck to toe in a coffin-like box.How many polio survivors are left? ›
Over 12 million people, worldwide have been affected by polio as indicated by the CDC. There is no central system for reporting post-polio syndrome, but it is estimated that 300,000 individuals are survivors of polio in the United States and have mild to severe symptoms.