The Story of the Man Living Inside an Iron Lung for the Last 70 Years (2022)

Paul Alexander has not breathed on his own since 1952. He is 76 today and one of the last living people still using an iron lung to stay alive. He is the living reminder of a horrific time in history when the polio virus engulfed the entire world. This infectious disease killed thousands of children every year, leaving more with life-long disabilities. The entire nation shook with the fear of death, paralysis, and isolation.

But this story is not about the disease, but of the man who defeated it with sheer willpower, and determination. This is the story of Paul Alexander, aka, “The Man in the Iron Lung”.

Table of Contents

Who is Paul Alexander?

The Story of the Man Living Inside an Iron Lung for the Last 70 Years (1)

In the summer of 1952, Paul was a happy and active six-year-old in Dallas, Texas, living a regular life like any other boy. But it was also the year when the country witnessed the largest single outbreak of polio. Paul got infected, and in a matter of six days, his life changed entirely. He went from a healthy, running, laughing, active little boy to not being able to speak, swallow, cough, or breathe in a matter of one week. This was the beginning of his life at the mercy of his mechanical respirator, the iron lung. No one thought Paul would live long. But Paul outdid everyone’s expectations from the disease. He had dreams and did not let disability get in the way! He studied, became a lawyer, and an author, with a story that can inspire millions who are defeated by their vulnerabilities every day.

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The Polio horror of the 1950s

Recalling early treatment for polio – an iron lung ward in Detroit Michigan. The design was based on vacuum pumps! pic.twitter.com/buXKm14m8j

(Video) The Man in the Iron Lung

— Dr. Christopher Leighton (@ccleighton) February 18, 2014

Today, because of COVID-19, we are all too familiar with the feeling of how the world can stand still in the face of a deadly virus. So, we can easily identify with the terror that gripped the world in the ’50s during the outbreak of polio. This was before the vaccine was invented. Families shut their windows and doors in fear. The neighborhoods were silent, empty, without the noises of playing children. Church services were suspended. Amusement parks, playgrounds, cinema halls, bars, and shopping malls lay abandoned or closed down. During its reign of terror in the ’40s and ’50s, polio was responsible for almost 15,000 cases of paralysis in the U.S. each year. Children were particularly vulnerable to the disease. In 1952, the year when Paul got polio, there were around 58,000 cases across the nation, of which, more than 21,000 were primarily children who suffered from disabilities. It was reported that 3,145 died. In New York, thousands of cats and dogs were killed, as people thought they transmitted the disease. Paul recalls it being like the “Black Plague.”

Paul’s battle with polio

The Story of the Man Living Inside an Iron Lung for the Last 70 Years (2)

After the doctors did a tracheotomy on him, his infection improved, but he found himself inside a metal cylinder, like hundreds of other children in the hospital. Paul remembers rows and rows of iron lungs with little heads popping out, trying to make friends, or communicate with other faces. Many did not make it, while others recovered and left. But Paul’s polio paralyzed him from his neck down, not letting him move or breathe. He spent 18 harrowing months in the hospital, where the doctors tried to teach him to breathe on his own, which is called “frog breathing.” Finally, with the help of a physical therapist, he overcame his fear of breathing and learned to “gulp for air”– breathing like a fish. He learned to breathe on his own.

Paul says, “It’s exhausting,” and, “People think I’m chewing gum. I’ve developed it into an art.” But he knew it was the only road to the future. Slowly, he could live his life outside the machine for a few hours every day while confined to a wheelchair. But at night he had to go back to his faithful metal friend to sleep. Today, he is over 70 and cannot do that anymore. He is confined inside the iron machine 24/7. But his fight is still on.

“I never gave up and I’m not going to,” Paul says.

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(Video) The Last Few Polio Survivors – Last of the Iron Lungs | Gizmodo

The iron lung is his longest friend.

The Story of the Man Living Inside an Iron Lung for the Last 70 Years (3)

Paul is paralyzed from the neck down and cannot use his lungs to breathe on his own. The iron lung helps him breathe by using negative pressure to take air into his lungs. This was invented in 1928 by Philip Drinker, a medical engineer, and Louis Shaw, a physiologist at Harvard. A hospital polio ward filled with children gasping for breath filled Louis with horror, and he decided to build something that would give them a chance at life. The iron lung uses a simple mechanism. To help the patient inhale, the air is pumped out of the iron machine, helping their chest to inflate. When the air is pumped back into the machine, the patient exhales. It was just meant to be used for one to two weeks until the body recovers.

Paul calls his iron lung his faithful “old iron horse.” Its yellow color will remind you of kitchen appliances in the ’50s, a testimony of a time long gone. Today, less than 10 people are using iron lungs. Paul prefers his faithful machine more than the modern breathing gadgets that can make a hole in his throat. Today, iron lungs are not produced anymore, and spare parts are hardly found. No one thought the people using these machines would last this long. But he did.

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Paul lived a full life.

The Story of the Man Living Inside an Iron Lung for the Last 70 Years (4)

(Video) Kansas City polio survivor is one of last iron lung users in U.S.

“Iron-willed man leaves iron lung to vote.” Paul Alexander made headlines in an article that came out in an Austin newspaper in 1980. Living inside an iron lung did not stop Paul from living his life to the fullest. Though Paul is still called “the man in the iron lung,” his life tells a story of a man with an iron will as well. He studied, graduated from school, went on to earn his post-graduate degree, passed his law exams, and became a successful lawyer.

The doctors did not expect Paul to live very long, but he proved the universe wrong. When Paul learned to breathe on his own, it enabled him to stay out of his machine for hours every day. Paul studied entirely from home and graduated at the top of his class at 21. He fell in love, went through heartbreak, had friends, enjoyed time in restaurants, bars, strip clubs, and diners, and even went to the movies.

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Paul earned degrees and had a career.

Paul had ambition and a hunger for learning. He applied to Southern Methodist University in Dallas but was rejected due to his disabilities. Paul recalls how he fought for two years until they accepted him with the condition that he gets the polio vaccine and finds someone to help him get to classes.

He fought for his dreams, and for his right to education. He shifted to the University of Texas and started living on his own. After graduating in 1978, he went on to study law for his post-graduate degree. He taught legal terminology to court stenographers at an Austin trade school for some time, but his dream was to become a lawyer, and he made it come true. In 1986, he passed his bar exams and became a lawyer. By now, he could breathe independently for hours and thus could attend classes whenever possible.

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(Video) Surprising The Man In the Iron Lung with $10,000 +Q&A

Paul wrote and self-published his memoir called Three Minutes for a Dog.

The Story of the Man Living Inside an Iron Lung for the Last 70 Years (6)

He didn’t stop at being a lawyer. Paul wrote his memoir, using a plastic stick and a pen to type his story on the keyboard entirely with his mouth. He also dictated his words to Norman Brown, his former nurse, and friend. It took him eight years. He wanted to inspire people. Paul says that no matter where you are from, what your past is, and what your challenges are, you can do anything if you are willing to put in hard work. Paul says he fought against polio every day of his life and is not about to give up. It gets painful and tiring, but he will continue to fight as long as he lives. Here’s wishing Paul the very best! May he continue to be the global inspiration that he already is!

Did you know that Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd United States president, contracted polio in 1921? He lost the use of his legs. Virologist Jonas Salk invented the vaccine in 1953, and the U.S. was officially declared polio-free in 1979 after a long and successful vaccination campaign across the nation.

Also Read:

18 Strange Medical Conditions That Sound Unreal

FAQs

Is Paul Alexander iron lung still alive? ›

He is still alive and well 70 years after becoming paralyzed. He has even written a book about his life in an iron lung, with the title Three Minutes for a Dog inspired by a physical therapist that offered a puppy as a reward for him glossopharyngeal breathing for three minutes outside the iron lung.

How do people go to the bathroom in an iron lung? ›

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.

How long did a patient have to stay in an 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.

What is the longest someone has lived in an iron lung? ›

June Margaret Middleton (4 May 1926 – 30 October 2009) was an Australian polio victim who spent more than 60 years living in an iron lung for treatment of the disease. In 2006, Guinness World Records recognised her as the person who had spent the longest amount of time living in an iron lung.

Did Paul Alexander pass away? ›

But he didn't die. Alexander just kept practicing a new breathing technique. Doctors sent him home with his iron lung, still believing he'd die there. Instead, the boy gained weight.

Is anyone still on an iron lung? ›

The machine was common during the polio epidemic, and Paul Alexander is one of the last people to be in one. The iron lung works to change the air pressure and stimulate breathing. It has been the home of 76-year-old Alexander, keeping him alive for 70 years.

How will feel a person inside an iron lung? ›

Imagine the terror of not being able to breathe because your lung muscles are paralysed. You're gasping for air as the medical team slides you into something that looks like a coffin on legs. They seal you in up to your neck and a strange 'whooshing' sound starts somewhere in the room.

How do people in an iron lung eat? ›

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.

What replaced the iron lung machine? ›

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.

How many polio survivors are still alive? ›

The World Health Organization estimates that 10 to 20 million polio survivors are alive worldwide, and some estimates suggest that 4 to 8 million of them may get PPS.

How many people still use an iron lung? ›

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.

What disease causes iron lung? ›

An iron lung, a medical device used to treat polio patients, became one of the most iconic objects of the polio epidemic.

Why did they stop making iron lungs? ›

Polio vaccination programs have virtually eradicated new cases of poliomyelitis in the developed world. Because of this, and the development of modern ventilators, and widespread use of tracheal intubation and tracheotomy, the iron lung has mostly disappeared from modern medicine.

How much did iron lungs cost? ›

Refined versions of iron lungs became the mainstay in treating polio victims during the next three decades. In 1939, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis began mass distribution of iron lungs, which cost about $1,500 each—then the average price of a home.

What is the ending of iron lung? ›

After the End: Although the universe has vanished, leaving the last humans struggling to survive, tensions have erupted between Coaliton of Iron and Eden Station, resulting in a conflict on one of the last and largest remaining space stations, Filament Station. The battle lead to its destruction.

Why did they put people in an iron lung? ›

Doctors performed a tracheotomy and put him in an iron lung—a sealed tank used to treat polio patients who had trouble breathing on their own. During the epidemic, hospital wards were lined with these respirators. They stimulate breathing by varying air pressure to compress and depress the chest.

What is an iron lung look like? ›

The Iron Lung - YouTube

Is an iron lung better than a ventilator? ›

This study suggests that iron lung ventilation is as effective as invasive mechanical ventilation in improving gas exchange in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients with acute respiratory failure, and is associated with a tendency towards a lower rate of major complications.

Is the last iron lung survivor still alive? ›

Paul Richard Alexander (born 1946) is a lawyer, writer and paralytic polio survivor. He is popularly known as one of the last people living in an iron lung after he contracted polio in 1952 at the age of six.

Are iron lungs still used in 2022? ›

The use of iron lungs is largely obsolete in modern medicine, as more modern breathing therapies have been developed, and due to the eradication of polio in most of the world.

How many polio survivors are still alive? ›

The World Health Organization estimates that 10 to 20 million polio survivors are alive worldwide, and some estimates suggest that 4 to 8 million of them may get PPS.

Is Paul Alexander Rich? ›

Paul Lir Alexander, also known as El Parito Loco, is a Brazilian drug lord. He is one of the richest drug lords in Brazil, having a net worth of more than $170 million.
...
Paul Lir Alexander
Bornc. 1956 Santa Catarina, Brazil
NationalityBrazilian
Other namesEl Parito Loco ("The Crazy Duck") "The Baron of Cocaine"
1 more row

What does it feel like to be in an iron lung? ›

Imagine the terror of not being able to breathe because your lung muscles are paralysed. You're gasping for air as the medical team slides you into something that looks like a coffin on legs. They seal you in up to your neck and a strange 'whooshing' sound starts somewhere in the room.

Can you move inside an iron lung? ›

You cannot turn over or anything. The iron lung had port holes on the side which came in useful for physiotherapy. They had a rubber seal so you could open them on the down breath and put a hand in, to do physiotherapy or anything inside.

Do people still get polio? ›

Do people still get polio in the United States? Thanks to a successful vaccination program, most people in the United States are protected from polio. However, people who are not vaccinated or who haven't received all recommended doses may be at risk of getting polio.

How many people in the US still use an iron lung? ›

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.

Is an iron lung better than a ventilator? ›

This study suggests that iron lung ventilation is as effective as invasive mechanical ventilation in improving gas exchange in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients with acute respiratory failure, and is associated with a tendency towards a lower rate of major complications.

When did hospitals stop using iron lungs? ›

Widespread vaccinations began in 1955 and by 1979 the virus had been completely eliminated in the United States. Because of this, and the development of modern ventilators, and the widespread use of tracheal intubation and tracheotomy, the iron lung has mostly disappeared from modern medicine.

Can polio come back? ›

But polio is making a comeback. There have been recent outbreaks around the world. Symptoms of polio can range from a mild, flu-like illness to serious muscle paralysis. Many people who survive polio are later at risk for PPS.

Can people with polio have children? ›

Frequently women who had polio at a very young age in one or both legs will not have normal development of the pelvic bones. This leads to a compromise of the birth canal that can often make delivery of a normal size fetus difficult or impossible.

Can you regain muscle after polio? ›

Answer: Research studies have demonstrated that muscle strength and endurance can be improved among polio survivors, even those diagnosed with PPS, through individually designed exercise programs that are monitored and advanced slowly over three to six months.

Did Paul Alexander have children? ›

Paul finished High School, got a law degree and qualified as a Solicitor, working in the profession from 1963-1969. He met and married Nili, an Israeli living in London in 1968, and they settled in Israel in 1971 and had 3 children.

How much money is Alexander worth? ›

Alexander the Great Net Worth $32 Trillion (Forbes) Gold Horses Castles at Death
Net Worth:$32 Trillion
Name:Alexander the Great
Height:5 ft 1 in (1.54 m)
Weight:71 kg (156 lbs)
Nationality:Greek
1 May 2022

What is Paul's net worth? ›

August 2, 2022. As of October 2022, Logan Paul's net worth is $45 Million. Logan Paul is an American YouTube superstar, vlogger, producer and entrepreneur.

Videos

1. He's Been Locked In This Machine For 70 Years
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2. The Man in The Iron Lung. The Last Few Polio Survivors
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3. Last Man In The Iron Lung | Locked in the machine from 70 years|Motivational story of Paul Alexander
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4. Paul Alexander | 70 Years In An Iron Lung *I Never Gave Up On Me*
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5. Living inside a canister: Dallas polio survivor is one of few people left in U.S. using iron lung
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6. The Man In The Iron Lung For Last 70 Years -The Last Polio Survivor - Untold Story of Paul Alexander
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