Texas Man Lives 70 Years in an Iron Lung: ‘I Never Gave Up’

Iron Lung
Iron lungs were a necessity during the peak of the polio plague in the 20th century. A Texas man (not pictured) continues to use one today after he became paralyzed from the disease nearly 70 years ago. Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

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.

“I never gave up and I’m not going to,” Alexander says in a recent video interview with storyteller Mitch Summers.

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.

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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 disease caused 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 States president, 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 virologist Jonas 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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