The amazing story of Paul Alexander, the man who has lived in an iron lung for 70 years

Suffering from paralytic poliomyelitis at the age of six in 1952, Paul Alexander is today one of the last people on Earth to still live in an iron lung.

Monica Verma/TwitterPaul Alexander was put in a lung of iron when he was stricken with polio aged just 6 – and he’s still there today.

Paul Alexander’s life could easily be considered a tragedy: a man who cannot breathe on his own, paralyzed from the neck down for seven decades as a result of contracting poliomyelitis. However, the one thing that is tragic about Paul’s story is that it highlights how easily some can give up when the going gets tough.

The Iron Lung is a capsule-shaped integral mechanical respirator. It breathes for you since you cannot take in oxygen normally. As with paralytic polio, you are also paralyzed – and without the support of the iron lung, you will die.

In fact, all the doctors thought Paul Alexander would die in 1952. He has vivid memories of being in the hospital’s polio ward and hearing the doctors talk about him. “He’s going to die today,” they said. “He shouldn’t be alive.”

It made him want to live even more. So, from the confines of his iron lung, Paul Alexander did this very few people are able to do this. He learned to breathe in a different way.

Paul Alexander contracts poliomyelitis and begins his new life with an iron lung

Paul Alexander was hospitalized on a sweltering July day in Texas in 1952, The Guardian reported. Swimming pools were closed, as were cinemas and almost everywhere else. The polio pandemic raged as people sheltered in place, terrified by the new disease with no cure.

Alexander suddenly felt ill and entered the house. His mother knew; he already looked like death. She called the hospital and the staff told her there was no room. It was better to try to recover at home, and some people did.

However, after five days, Alexander lost all motor function. His ability to breathe was slowly leaving him too.

His mother took him to the emergency room. The doctors said nothing could be done. They put him on a stretcher and left him in a hallway. But a rushing doctor saw him and – thinking the boy might still have a chance – took Paul Alexander to surgery for a tracheostomy.

He woke up in an iron lung, surrounded by a sea of ​​other children locked in giant ventilators. He couldn’t speak because of his operation. Over the months, he tried to communicate with other children through facial expressions, but “Every time I made a friend, he died,” Alexander recalls.

But he is not dead. Alexander just kept practicing a new breathing technique. Doctors sent him home with his iron lung, still believing he would die there. Instead, the boy gained weight. The muscle memory meant breathing was easier, and after a while he could spend an hour outside the iron lung, then two.

Prompted by his physiotherapist, Alexander practiced trapping air in his throat cavity and training his muscles to force air past his vocal cords and into the lungs. It’s sometimes called “frog breathing,” and if he could do it for three minutes, his therapist promised he’d buy him a puppy.

It took him a year to work up to three minutes, but he didn’t stop there. Alexander wanted to play with his new puppy – whom he named Ginger – outside in the sun.

The man with the iron lung continues his studies

Paul Alexandre Young

Gizmodo/YouTube Paul is enjoying life, despite his paralytic poliomyelitis.

Alexander made friends once released from the hospital and able to leave the iron lung for periods, and on some afternoons they pushed him around the neighborhood in his wheelchair. However, during the day, these friends were all busy doing the one thing he desperately wanted to do: go to school.

His mother had already taught him the basics of reading, but the schools had not allowed him to take home lessons. Eventually they gave in and Paul quickly caught up, making up for the time he had lost in the hospital. His father designed a pen attached to a stick that Alexander could hold in his mouth to write.

Time passed, months into years – and Paul Alexander graduated from high school with nearly straight A’s. Now he could spend hours in his wheelchair instead of the iron lung. The friends who pushed him around the neighborhood have now taken him to restaurants, bars and movies.

He applied to Southern Methodist University, but they rejected him solely because of his disability. But as with anything that has proven difficult, Alexander didn’t give up. He eventually convinced them to let him attend – which they did only on two conditions. Alexander should get the newly developed polio vaccine and an assistant to get to class.

Alexander was still living at home, but that was soon to change. He ended up transferring to the University of Texas at Austin, moving into a dorm and hiring a caretaker to help with physical chores and hygiene.

He graduated in 1978 and moved on to earning a graduate degree in law – which he did in 1984. Not far from finished, Alexander got a job teaching legal terminology at trade school while studying for his bar exams. He passed these two years later.

For decades he worked as a lawyer around Dallas and Fort Worth. He would be in court in a modified wheelchair that supported his paralyzed body. All the while, he was practicing a modified form of breathing that allowed him to be outside of the Iron Lung.

Alexander even made headlines in November 1980 – for venturing to vote in the presidential election, among other things.

Paul Alexander Polio

Dream Big/YouTubePaul in his years of practicing law.

Paul Alexander Today

Now 75, Paul Alexander relies almost exclusively on his iron lung to breathe. “It’s exhausting,” he said of his skillful way of frog-breathing. “People think I chew gum. I made it an art.

He always thought polio would come back, especially since recently parents gave up on vaccines. But it was the 2020 pandemic that threatened Alexander’s current livelihood. Should he catch COVID-19, it would surely be a sad end for a man who managed to overcome so many obstacles.

Today, Alexander is survived by his parents and his brother. He even survived his original iron lung. When he started leaking, he posted a video on YouTube asking for help. A local engineer found another to renovate.

He was also in love. In college he met a girl named Claire and they got engaged. Unfortunately, an intrusive mother got in the way, refusing to let the wedding happen or even Alexander to continue talking to his daughter. “It took years to heal from that,” Alexander said.

He relies on technology to live, but also for things like us. An Amazon Echo sits near its iron lung. What is it mainly used for? “Rock’n’roll,” he said.

Alexandre wrote a book, aptly named Three minutes for a dog: my life in an iron lung. It took him more than eight years to write it, using his pen to type on a keyboard or sometimes dictating it to a friend. He is currently working on a second book and continues to enjoy life – reading, writing and eating his favorite foods: sushi and fried chicken.

Even though he needs almost constant care now, there doesn’t seem to be any slowing down for Paul Alexander.

“I have big dreams,” he says. “I won’t accept anyone’s limitations in my life. I won’t. My life is amazing.


Then read how Elvis convinced America to get the polio shot. Then, reclaim your faith in humanity with these 33 feel-good stories from history.

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