The world needs to hear Paul’s incredible story.
Paul is a polio survivor who spends everyday in an iron lung, a device from the early 1900’s which keeps him alive.
Not only has he gone on to do great things, his outlook on life inspiring.
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The Man in the Iron Lung who is over 121 Years Old and Lawyer.
When he was six, Paul Alexander contracted polio and was paralysed for life. Today he is 74, and one of the last people in the world still using an iron lung. But after surviving one deadly outbreak, he did not expect to find himself threatened by another
The summer of 1952 was hot, even by Texas standards: 25 days above 100F (38C), the “cool” days not much cooler. But across the state, swimming pools were shut. Cinemas, too, and bars and bowling alleys. Church services were suspended. Cities doused their streets with DDT insecticide; by now, health officials knew that mosquitoes didn’t spread the disease, but they had to be seen to be doing something. Nothing seemed to work. As the summer wore on, the numbers of polio cases grew.
One day in July, in a quiet Dallas suburb, a six-year-old boy named Paul Alexander was playing outside in the summer rain. He didn’t feel well – his neck hurt, his head pounded. Leaving his muddy shoes in the yard, he walked barefoot into the kitchen, letting the screen door slam behind him. When his mother looked up at his feverish face, she gasped. She made him run out and grab his shoes, then ordered him to bed.
Paul spent the first day in his parents’ bed, filling in Roy Rogers colouring books. But even as his fever soared and aching pains blossomed in his limbs, the family doctor advised his parents not to take him to hospital. It was clear that he had polio, but there were just too many patients there, the doctor said. Paul had a better chance of recovering at home.
Over the next few days, the boy’s condition worsened. Five days after he had walked into the kitchen barefoot, Paul could no longer hold a crayon, speak, swallow or cough. His parents rushed him to Parkland hospital. Though the staff were well trained and there was a dedicated polio ward, the hospital was overwhelmed. There were sick children everywhere, and nowhere to treat them all. Paul’s mother held him in her arms and waited.
When the boy was finally seen by a doctor, his mother was told that there was nothing to be done for him. Paul was left on a gurney in a hallway, barely breathing. He would have died had another doctor not decided to examine him again. This second doctor picked him up, ran with him to the operating theatre and performed an emergency tracheotomy to suction out the congestion in his lungs that his paralysed body couldn’t shift.
Three days later, Paul woke up. His body was encased in a machine that wheezed and sighed. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t cough. He couldn’t see through the fogged windows of the steam tent – a vinyl hood that kept the air around his head moist and the mucus in his lungs loose. He thought he was dead.
When the tent was eventually removed, all he could see were the heads of other children, their bodies encased in metal canisters, nurses in starched white uniforms and caps floating between them. “As far as you can see, rows and rows of iron lungs. Full of children,” he recalled recently.
The next 18 months were torture. Although he couldn’t talk because of the tracheotomy, he could hear the cries of other children in pain. He lay for hours in his own waste because he couldn’t tell the staff he needed to be cleaned. He nearly drowned in his own mucus. His parents visited almost every day, but his existence was unrelentingly boring. He and the other children tried to communicate, making faces at each other, but, Paul said: “Every time I’d make a friend, they’d die.”
Paul recovered from the initial infection, but polio left him almost completely paralysed from the neck down. What his diaphragm could no longer do for him, the iron lung did. Paul lay flat on his back, his head resting on a pillow and his body encased in the metal cylinder from the neck down. Air was sucked out of the cylinder by a set of leather bellows powered by a motor; the negative pressure created by the vacuum forced his lungs to expand.
When the air was pumped back in, the change in pressure gently deflated his lungs. This was the regular hiss and sigh that kept Paul alive. He could not leave the lung. When medical staff opened it to wash him or manage his bodily functions, he had to hold his breath.
What Paul remembers most vividly about the ward is hearing the doctors talk about him when they walked through on their rounds. “He’s going to die today,” they said. “He shouldn’t be alive.” It made him furious. It made him want to live.
In 1954, when Paul was eight, his mother got a call from a physical therapist who worked with the March of Dimes, a US charity dedicated to eradicating polio. Paul’s months on the polio ward had left him with a fear of doctors and nurses, but his mother reassured him, and so the therapist, Mrs Sullivan, began visiting twice a week.
Paul told the therapist about the times he had been forced by doctors to try to breathe without the lung, how he had turned blue and passed out. He also told her about the time he had gulped and “swallowed” some air, almost like breathing. The technique had a technical name, “glossopharyngeal breathing”. You trap air in your mouth and throat cavity by flattening the tongue and opening the throat, as if you’re saying “ahh” for the doctor. With your mouth closed, the throat muscle pushes the air down past the vocal cords and into the lungs. Paul called it “frog-breathing”.
Sullivan made a deal with her patient. If he could frog-breathe without the iron lung for three minutes, she’d give him a puppy. It took Paul a year to learn to do it, but he got his puppy; he called her Ginger. And though he had to think about every breath, he got better at it. Once he could breathe reliably for long enough, he could get out of the lung for short periods of time, first out on the porch, and then into the yard.
Although he still needed to sleep in the iron lung every night – he couldn’t breathe when he was unconscious – Paul didn’t stop at the yard. At 21, he became the first person to graduate from a Dallas high school without physically attending a class. He got into Southern Methodist University in Dallas, after repeated rejections by the university administration, then into law school at the University of Texas at Austin. For decades, Paul was a lawyer in Dallas and Fort Worth, representing clients in court in a three-piece suit and a modified wheelchair that held his paralysed body upright.