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

Despite the iron lung, Paul Alexander has led an accomplished life.


Paul Alexander, a 76 year old man who has spent most of his life confined to an iron lung, is the perfect example that the only limits are the ones we place on ourselves.

Paul recalls that when he was around six years old, he rushed home one day and told his mother that he didn’t feel good. Up until that moment, Paul has been a normal child. He was vibrant and loved being around other kids. “Oh my God, not my son,” Paul he recalled his mother saying.

At the time, he couldn’t understand what was wrong and what was going on because he was still very young to understand that he contracted polio, a contagious viral illness that in its most severe form causes nerve injury leading to paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death. Even children who seem to fully recover can develop new muscle pain, weakness, or paralysis as adults, 15 to 40 years later, a condition known as post-polio syndrome.

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Few days passed by and Paul’s condition worsened. He had fever and muscle pain, so his parents rushed him to the hospital. There, he wasn’t alone. Sadly, a huge number of children who contracted the virus were waiting to be treated, although there is no known cure.

At first, Paul was pronounced dead, but then another doctor approached him and decided to perform an emergency tracheotomy on Paul. Right after the surgery, he was placed inside an iron lung.

Paul Alexander/ Screenshot

Iron lungs had been invented during the early 1920s. Known as the “Drinker respirator” in the early days, this mechanical respirator which encloses most of a person’s body and varies the air pressure in the enclosed space, helps stimulate breathing.

“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. “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.”

After spending 18 long months inside the machine, Paul started working with a therapist named Mrs. Sullivan who helped him learn how to breath again using a method known as the ‘frog-breathe’ technique.

Paul was then able to spend more time outside the iron lung than he was before.

Paul not only attended school, but he graduated from the from Southern Methodist University and then attended law school at the University of Texas at Austin after which he passed the bar exam and became a lawyer in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “And I was a pretty damn good one too!” Paul said.

Speaking of the time he was a student, Paul recalled, “They said I was too crippled and did not have the vaccination. 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.”

Paul had a very successful career as a lawyer of over 30 years and even wrote a book.

According to reports, he’s the last person who is still using the iron lung.

“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.

Once, when his machine almost broke down, Paul pleaded people to help him fix it. Luckily, as no one uses them any longer, he was able to find spare parts. “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 explained.

Despite his condition, Paul says his life has been fulfilling and he’s happy with how things turned out for him. “I am not going to accept from anybody their limitations on my life. Not gonna do it. My life is incredible,” this inspiring man says.

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