The Truth About One Of The Last People Living In An Iron Lung

In the 1940s and 1950s, the United States was under the grip of an epidemic. Polio ravaged many cities and sickened many children. According to the CDC, polio is a life-threatening disease from poliovirus that can cause paralysis. Incredibly contagious, polio makes it difficult for people to breathe because of muscle weakness, which can live on in an infected person for years. Back in the 1940s and '50s, a lot of those who got sick were children. Some got so bad that they needed the assistance of a machine called an iron lung in order to breathe. For many of us today, the idea that people had to use an iron lung to stay alive seems like such a long time ago. But, there are still people alive continuing to survive with the use of the iron lungs. One of these people is Paul Alexander, who's spent most of his life under the lungs.

Some patients suffering from polio never fully recovered. Instead, they needed to spend time inside a chamber to breathe. An iron lung, or as it's also known, the tank respirator, is a type of negative pressure ventilator that does the breathing for a person. As a paper from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine explained, people are placed on a flat frame that pushes into the machine. Their head sticks out, and mirrors are placed around them so they can see what's going on. They stayed in for hours.

He was just playing outside

Alexander was six years old when he got polio. He told The Guardian it was July 1952 when he developed a fever. Days before, he had been playing in the mud around his Dallas home. What he didn't know, but his parents feared, was that polio was making its rounds throughout the country.

His mother made him leave his shoes outside; polio is often transmitted through feces and droplets of bodily fluids, so you never know if it's been mixed in the mud and rain. Alexander's symptoms got worse in the next few days. He started to feel pain in his limbs and couldn't hold anything. At one point, he had to get surgery to remove congestion in his lungs that his body, by then paralyzed, couldn't move.

When Alexander woke up, he was encased in an iron lung. Even though he eventually recovered from the infection, it left Alexander paralyzed from the neck down. From then on, he needed to stay in the iron lung. He managed to learn how to breathe to leave the lung for a few hours, but he had to sleep in it every night.

At 21, he graduated high school, the first person in his school to finish without physically being there. He got into college and went on to law school. Even though Alexander still used an iron lung every night, he could go to court and represent clients in a modified wheelchair to hold him upright.

He wants you to get vaccinated

Alexander, now 74, still uses the iron lung. In the years since he came down with polio, he's become an activist, Alcalde reported, urging people to be vaccinated. The reason why polio is not as pervasive as it once was is directly related to distribution of the vaccine developed by Jonas Salk in 1955. The United States no longer sees high polio cases, though it hasn't been eradicated entirely, like smallpox.

Alexander said he wants people to get vaccinated because if they don't, diseases like polio could come back with a vengeance. And he knows better than most what it's like to live with a condition that is now easily preventable by the prick of a needle. (You can probably guess how Alexander feels about the anti-vaxxer movement.)

Most people who needed long-term use of an iron lung were not expected to live past their teenage years, but Alexander pushes on. The Guardian said aside from Alexander, there is just one other person living in an iron lung in the United States. These days, with another pandemic raging in the country, Alexander stays at home inside his iron lung. COVID-19 has renewed interest in iron lungs, or a more modern version of it, as hospitals run out of respirators. Current respirators are expensive, but an iron lung could be a cheaper alternative.

As for Alexander, he just hopes the world doesn't have to see rooms filled with iron lungs keeping people alive.